Advertising is the Original Sin of the Web

Ethan Zuckerman
Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media

Ethan Zuckerman, the man behind the existence of a type of ad that internet users love to hate, is apologizing for his creation. He acknowledged that pop-ups have become one of the most hated thing on the internet.

"It's not too late to ditch the ad-based business model and build a better web." Zuckerman wrote an article for The Atlantic on August 14th, 2014, apologizing for the tech he created long ago. "The internet's original sin", the pop-up, was first created when he was working for web hosting company from 1994 to 1999. Tripod created a website to provide services and content to college graduates, but that didn't work as planned. The company that offered its services for free, had tried many ways to generate revenue, but in the end, it had to rely on advertising to survive.

"The model that got us acquired was analyzing users' personal homepages so we could better target ads to them," Zuckerman said said. "Along the way, we ended up creating one of the most hated tools in the advertiser's toolkit: the pop-up ad."

Ethan Zuckerman, now the Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, said that he was the one who wrote the code to launch the window and run an ad in it. "I'm sorry. Our intentions were good."

Tripod that had no choice other than turning itself into an ads supported site was a natural but not inevitable choice. "I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web," he writes. "The fallen state of our internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services."

Pop-ups had annoyed more than many internet users. This has made tech companies like Netscape to pioneer pop-up blockers to make browsing a better experience than it was did when pop-up "ruled" the web.

However, on the other side, pop-up ads do tie into the question of who pays for the internet contents. Ads are often necessary evil that people have to face. Advertisers seek to collect as much information about users so they can deliver the most compelling and alluring ads to the right audience. This is what they want, and it's also what we want.

Big companies, like Google or some social media like Facebook, may lack online privacy. But it's the small startups that are responsible towards the increase of internet surveillance. Despite they can't create billions in dollars for revenue, they are the solid foundations that made the web.

Giant tech companies don't need to spy on its users to gain investors' interests because their massive number of users and shared contents are their selling point. Smaller companies on the other hand, need more information about its users to stand out.

"We build businesses that promise investors that advertising will be more invasive, ubiquitous, and targeted and that we will collect more data about our users and their behavior."

"There is no single 'right answer' to the question of how we pay for the tool that lets us share knowledge, opinions, ideas, and photos of cute cats. Whether we embrace micropayments, membership, crowdfunding, or any other model, there are bound to be unintended consequences. But 20 years in to the ad-supported web, we can see that our current model is bad, broken, and corrosive. It's time to start paying for privacy, to support services we love, and to abandon those that are free, but sell us - the users and our attention - as the product."

No matter how annoying ads can be on the internet, especially when it pops up without our permission, ads are what made the internet grow. Without the "economy" in it, its growth wouldn't be as as phenomenal as it is today, or might even stalled. And that business model is what funded Tripod, and had led the company being acquired by Lycos in 1998.