Law in the Internet Society

The Race for Human Attention

-- By LiranNacker - 04 Nov 2016


Many have called for greater attention to the power of the Net, as an aggregator of our online behavior. They caution us that we are inviting the gradual forfeiture of our right to privacy by allowing companies to collect, store and analyze our online behavior in exchange for free content. This type of thinking is exemplified in attitudes towards online advertising – nowadays, an inseparable part of the online environment. People consider their exposure to ads to be a small price to pay for freely consuming digital content. However, users end up paying for this “free” content with something far more valuable than money – a form of two-layered currency – their attention and their privacy.

The Bad – Lack of Privacy in the Market for Human Attention

Online publishers rely on ads as their main source of revenue. Under this financing model, what appears to users to be “free” access to content in exchange for their decision whether to click an ad or not – is in fact a contractual relationship between the online publisher and the advertiser in which, in return for sponsorship, the advertiser gains the ability to target the publisher’s users with specialized ads. For this to gain the upper hand, advertisers must constantly vie for human attention online by intervening in how content is displayed at the user’s end. This form of interference, heavily affects the user experience through the creation of a mosaic of “rich” ads comprised of animated text, video and sound. Users accessing content online are bombarded with distracting banners and popups as part of the advertiser’s attempt to shift the user’s attention to the ad and away from the original content sought.

Induced by this race, new capabilities have been introduced within this field in the form of Targeted and Retargeted advertising that pinpoint a particular audience with highly personalized ads. This form of “new-age” advertising consists of easy to deploy tracking technologies (known as Cookies) and various analytic tools, aimed at tracking, analyzing and predicting users’ online behavior. In such an environment publishers are incentivized to commercialize their users’ information and knowingly allow for invasive, sometimes malware-vulnerable, software to run at their users’ end. Not surprisingly, at the finish line of this race is the heavy price paid by users for this “free” digital content – a commercial database containing people’s interests, searches, likes and dislikes; and neither the publisher nor advertiser have any interest in putting this practice to rest.

The Ugly – Lack of Autonomy in the Market for Human Attention

The race for human attention online has also curtailed and imperiled our autonomy. Professor Eben Moglen, in a 2014 article in The Guardian, defines privacy as a combination of three elements – “Secrecy, Anonymity and Autonomy”. Autonomy, he stresses, is “our ability to make our own life decisions free from any force that has violated our secrecy or our anonymity”. Based on this unpacked definition, the market for human attention is clearly detrimental to users’ autonomy. In exchange for “free” content, users have allowed advertisers to track their online behavior and anticipate what it is that they will read, will listen to, will buy and where they will travel. However convenient this state of affairs has made our lives, we must concede that it impairs our ability to be autonomous in how we think and live our lives. This encroachment on users’ autonomy is compounded by the fact that for the most part it occurs without their informed consent.

The Good - Changes in the Market for Human Attention

In a minor shift in power, brought in part by users’ growing use of Ad-Blockers (estimated according to PageFair to cost publishers nearly $22 billion in 2015), some online publishers have adopted new financing models which do not rely entirely on ads. Some have transitioned towards the use of “Paywalls” and other subscription-based models, while others have come to rely on the audience’s willingness to contribute, if they so choose, to support content that they enjoy and love. Sceptics of this model should consider the funding mechanism used to support Wikimedia Foundation and the success of Wikipedia in providing free, ad-less content; as well as the success of a slightly different model used by National Public Radio, which is rapidly moving away from corporate sponsorship, by relying on contributions from listeners. Online publishers are increasingly likely to explore alternative financing models in light of the growing interference by Regulators in the relationship between online publishers and advertisers.


The practice in which personal information is provided in exchange for “free” content, has put online privacy at risk by affecting the right of online users to consume digital content anonymously, and to make autonomous decisions online. In this market for human attention, online advertising has served as a catalyst in this gradual demise of online privacy – enabling the creation of an environment in which users are “surveilled” for commercial benefit. Recently, efforts have been made to rethink the financing models used by online publishers, so as to shift human attention back from the ad to the actual content - thereby attempting to restore online privacy. However, this is clearly just the tip of the iceberg, as the commercialization of privacy online extends well beyond online advertising and the market for human attention in which online advertising flourishes. This practice requires our attention now, because the days of advertisers and other service providers tracking us inside our homes, with banners appearing on kitchen appliances suggesting that we are out of milk, and shower mirrors promoting razor blades – are fast approaching. In fact, they are already here.


Webs Webs

r3 - 29 Jan 2017 - 00:02:31 - LiranNacker
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