(Cross-posted from my blog)

The Web was never perfect. There were always people using it to exploit others. Sometimes, it was the small-time Ebay scammer looking for a couple of dollars. Other times, it was a giant multinational trying to get you to buy things you didn't need.

At the same time, it was a wonderful place. You could meet interesting people and talk about anything that you liked. In a way, it freed us from the physical limitations of geography and paper, letting our minds wander, meet, and create things like LessWrong.

But now I believe some loosely coordinated actors threaten to change the Web for the worse. If allowed, they would turn it into a medium that restricts interaction and promotes passively consuming low quality information–like cable TV. I believe advertising and recommendation systems are driving this change.

This is Water: Online Advertising

The prevalence of ads has normalized them. Most people I've met have never asked "Where do ads come from?" If they did, they would discover it involves private data centers, a small army of software engineers, and enough hardware purchases to influence global markets. But for most, it's simply a part of reality, like electricity and supply chains.

In line with this norm, Google, along with a handful of other online advertisers, developed a new standard called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).

The way it works is this: while a user surfs the Web, their browser analyzes what content they see. Based on that, it assigns them to a cohort of users with similar preferences. Any ad system they encounter can request the cohort ID and use that to display ads targeted at a user's specific preferences.

Privacy advocates have scrutinized FLoC and found multiple problems. For example, exposing users' ethnicity, political affiliation, and other traits to anyone who asks for it, making it easier to discriminate against them. Or creating convincing scams targeted at specific groups of people. Or... I'll stop here.

However, what I haven't seen discussed is that FLoC would write advertising into a standard. That would make every browser an extension of the online advertising industry. I believe this is dangerous because it further normalizes the idea that ads are critical to the Web.

But are they?

The common argument in favor of ads says that ads are better than alternatives like paywalls and micropayments. They allow users to trade a little of their attention and bandwidth for content they would not be able to pay for if it was behind a paywall. And despite multiple attempts over the years, nobody has managed to get micropayments to work.

There are two problems with this. First, a little over 40% of users employ ad-blockers. That's a clear signal that they dislike ads. Second, ads create an environment that rewards low effort, low quality information. It's one of the reasons why web search seems to be getting worse–most results are pages generated to game ranking algorithms to earn clicks from displaying ads (or scamming people).

And yet FLoC would weave ads deeper into the Web's fabric.

Free to Choose: Recommendation Systems

Like ads, recommendation systems are everywhere. And like ads, their familiarity helps conceal their size and complexity. It also masks how much they influence us.

On a basic level, they do so by offering us a set of "good enough" choices. This way, when a user finds something they like, they can keep on getting more of the same until they exhaust the set or get bored. Because of this, they also see less content they dislike, but more importantly, they spend less time actively searching.

I believe this is making users more passive. It limits the number of decisions they make, offloading them to a program someone else wrote. Sometimes, when it acts as a tool to explore a set of media, it can be helpful. But it seems that more frequently it keeps the user engaged by pushing just the right buttons in their brain–like pages that display the best memes or most triggering news.

One could object and say that recommendation systems reveal users' true preferences. They just so happen to be: pretty or outraged faces; quick camera cuts; baby-like animals; etc.

But I feel this argument misses how much design influences our behavior. There are plenty of real world examples of this, like in urban planning.

Robert Moses shaped many parts of New York City. He created parks, highways, social housing projects, and even some bridges. His designs favored quantitative aspects over qualitative ones: throughput over well-being, capacity over community interaction, etc.

The highways he built ran through thriving neighborhoods, causing residents to move out and crime to move in. Some of the communities affected this way, like the small Swedish diaspora, never re-materialized and disappeared from the City. In a similar fashion, the social housing projects he designed made forming communities harder. That lead to a steady level of crime, trapping residents in a bad equilibrium.

By analogy, recommendation systems are architectural elements that nudge users toward passively consuming clickbait, turning the Web into a quieter, single-play-like experience.

TV-ification of the Web

Acting together, ads and recommendation systems create a feedback loop: recommendations draw people's attention, which in turn draws advertisers, whose money improves recommendations, which attract more people and so on.

This loop is beginning to change how the Web works, primarily benefiting ad-tech. In my mind, FLoC is a clear example of this because it attempts to cement ads as an integral part of the Web. Aside from the problems I already described, I think it will make it harder to experiment with alternative models of creating content, trapping us in a local maximum–a passive, ad-filled Web that's more like cable TV than anything else.

Why do I think this would be a bad future?

Neil Postman wrote a whole book about it. In "Amusing Ourselves to Death", he explained that television is a worse medium than print because it cannot sustain the same complexity of ideas as the latter can. It reduces everything to entertainment: political debates resemble game shows; commercials take the form of micro-stories; news programs–full of quick takes and music effects–are like action films.

If the Web gets simplified like that, we will lose something incredible. It will no longer be a place where minds can meet, where someone's skin color or nationality is irrelevant, a place where, despite scams and trolling, friendships and communities form and thrive.

In the language of LessWrong, a TV-like Web means lowering the global sanity waterline. That's what has me worried.


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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:31 PM

I don't disagree, but I don't know what specifically to object to.  "people and companies want to make money entertaining folks" seems pretty universal, as does "most consumers don't want to be challenged or put in much effort into their entertainment".  

Maybe I do disagree with the implied dichotomy that "the web" can only be one thing, and if it's more ad-supported-entertainment, it has to be less long-form idea exploration and thoughtful discussion.  That's not the case.  There's more thoughtful writing now than ever before.  Admittedly, it's harder to find because there's just more STUFF than ever before, including the lowest-common-denominator entertainments that you're worried about.  

As to the metaphor - I presume you don't remember the introduction and popularization of cable TV.  It was revolutionary to have more than a few centrally-controlled channels available.  CATV in the '70s and '80s was more freeing than the internet in the '90s (though past '03 or so, the internet continued to grow in diversity and human connections, unlike CATV, which became near-universal and killed broadcast TV, but didn't much expand it's scope).  Yes, in this paragraph, I'm reminiscing like a grizzled old miner, and using the word "aught" for the zeros.

I don't disagree, but I don't know what specifically to object to.

Thanks for the feedback. Admittedly, and I probably should have included this in the text, I think of these as weak signals about getting closer to a boundary of what is acceptable. I'm not against advertising or people making money off entertainment, but I see the online ad industry as a race to the bottom that will only stop once a larger group of people realize that ads have gone too far.

Maybe I do disagree with the implied dichotomy that "the web" can only be one thing, and if it's more ad-supported-entertainment, it has to be less long-form idea exploration and thoughtful discussion.

This is actually what I am worried about. Right now, the web can be many things. However, by baking advertising into the browser, this could shift the balance toward just one thing.

I realize my argument could be viewed as slippery slope, but from a different perspective, actions like FLoC could be stake-driving--attempts to move the window of what is acceptable.

I presume you don't remember the introduction and popularization of cable TV.

Nope! I was born too late for that. Growing up, TV for me and my friends was already something slow and boring and full of TV shopping channels.

I agree with the majority of what you speculate about concerning the effects of an ad-oriented internet, although I keep seeing very good science and engineering content produced exclusively for the web and paid for through a mix of advertising and some form of sales (merchandise, the right to access early content, etc.).

The Mozilla Foundation publishes excellent articles on privacy on the web in their newsletter and then actually takes action, as does the Electronic Frontier Foundation; those would be good groups to contribute to if you want to support action against advertisers.

Finally, since I dislike ads but work in the advertising industry, I've thought of ways to reconcile the right to earn capital in a capitalist system, which is supported by advertising because it sways people's purchasing patterns, with the right to freedom of choice which many of us feel we inherently possess and which is threatened by advertising, which sways our purchasing patterns (especially painful is the fact that "successful" advertising often exploits behavioural biases and causes targets to make suboptimal choices, like spending more money than they can afford to).

For the last few years, I've entertained the idea of turning the tables completely by having machine agents seek out ads on behalf the consumer. Inspiration comes from human behaviour: if someone close to you knows you need new shoes, and they know your preferences, and they know your budget constraints, they can make pretty good recommendations -- parents even go ahead and buy things without further discussion, often hunting for discounts and making a lot of comparisons, shielding the child from the negative effects of advertising. An agent would do the same thing for the consumer: knowing their needs, preferences, and spending practices, it would actively keep an eye on relevant ads and only surface information about those it considers relevant. This may require more generalized artificial intelligence than currently exists, though.

It looks like FLoC is an alternative to third-party cookies, which Alphabet plans to discontinue in Google Chrome next year.

Microsoft is so far not following along in Edge, which makes sense because Microsoft is not as dependent on advertising.

From what I've read, Firefox, Brave, and Safari are also not interested in FLoC either. The community behind Wordpress, which powers ~40% of the worlds websites, is considering treating FLoC as a security concern, too.

If this is something that the browser does, there could be browsers that refuse to provide the information (or provide random/adversarial info) or maybe simple wrappers that strip/replace that info.

Yes, technically this would be easy, even simple, to do.

However, I think the problem would be about FLoC being enabled by default. If a hundred thousand technical users disabled FLoC, that would do nothing for the other 3+ billion users with Chrome enabled (estimating based on Chrome's 70-80% market share). And the reason why I find that worrying would be why I would be worried if cigarette companies put opium in their products--I would feel that millions of members of society around me would be getting exploited.

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