“Stop Thinking About Consent: It Isn’t Possible and It Isn’t Right”

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For a philosopher, Helen Nissenbaum is a surprisingly active participant in shaping how we collect, use, and protect personal data. Nissenbaum, who earned her PhD from Stanford, is a professor of information science at Cornell Tech, New York City, where she focuses on the intersection of politics, ethics, and values in technology and digital media — the hard stuff. Her framework for understanding digital privacy has deeply influenced real-world policy.

In addition to several books and countless papers, she’s also coauthored privacy plug-ins for web browsers including TrackMeNot, AdNauseum, and Adnostic. Nissenbaum views these pieces of code as small efforts at rationalizing a marketplace where opaque consent agreements give consumers little bargaining power against data collectors as they extract as much information, and value from this information, as they can. Meanwhile, these practices offer an indefinite value proposition to consumers while compromising the integrity of digital media, social institutions, and individual security.

The thing about ad-blocker popups

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I’ve been, in the past, a firm distruster of ad blocking software. I still am, to a large extent. I don’t trust any company whose finance model is based on inserting exceptions for advertisers they like. But I installed Ghostery, whose model is to use the stats of what gets blocked to offer consultancy to companies to make their adverts less horrific. I like this idea, so I support it. My Ghostery install is fairly open, blocking only sites that offer page-takeover, popups, autoplaying videos, and other stuff that annoys me a lot. So I get a bit annoyed when I’m scrolling through a Wired article and get something like this:

Fine. I don’t disagree with the sentiment, but I don’t read Wired often enough to care about being a member, so yeah, ad supported isn’t unreasonable. Do you know what’s unreasonable, Wired? This is what happens when I whitelist your site:

I’ve gone full-nuclear these last few years and I just keep Javascript disabled for most domains, most of the time (I’m using uMatrix). The Web is a lot faster, for it, and I can just enable it for domains that “need” it as-and-when. I also keep a userscript to-hand that I can tweak as-and-when to block anti-ad-blocker scripts, so that enabling Javascript on your domain (but not the domains of your dozen trackers/advertisers) doesn’t mean that I see your anti-ad-blocker popups either.

If your site nags gently (e.g. by mentioning where ads would be that they’re blocked, perhaps with a sad face emoticon) I’ll consider adding the ads, if your site has value. But more likely, if your site’s good, I’ll be looking for the donate link. You can make more money out of me with donations than you ever would be showing me ads: I’m more than happy to pay for the Web… I’m not happy to have 75% of the work my computer does when I’m reading your content be about your advertising partners tracking me nor about trying to “block” me from seeing your content.

The full article helps show how bad the Web’s gotten. When it starts to get better again, perhaps I’ll stop blocking ads and trackers so aggressively.

Child Abuse Ad Uses Lenticular Printing to Help Children While Remaining Invisible to Adults

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Child Abuse Ad Uses Lenticular Printing to Help Children While Remaining Invisible to Adults (Laughing Squid)
The ANAR Foundation and Grey Group Spain have created a unique advertising campaign that only kids can see. The ad campaign uses lenticular printing to show individuals below a certain height — children, in this case — a certain image, while taller people see a different image. Children looking at the ad see a photo of an abused boy, a help hotline, and the message 'if somebody hurts you, phone us and we’ll help you,' while adults can only see an unbruised photo of the boy with the text 'Sometimes child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.'

Lenticular printing

The ANAR Foundation and Grey Group Spain have created a unique advertising campaign that only kids can see. The ad campaign uses lenticular printing to show individuals below a certain height — children, in this case — a certain image, while taller people see a different image. Children looking at the ad see a photo of an abused boy, a help hotline, and the message “if somebody hurts you, phone us and we’ll help you,” while adults can only see an unbruised photo of the boy with the text “Sometimes child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.”

At long last, a use for lenticular printing (I mean, aside from making real-world stickers out of your favourite animated GIFs…).

Signs Seen in Service Stations

It feels like most of the time I’ve spent in a car this year, so far, has been for travel related to somebody’s recent death. And so it was that yesterday, Ruth, JTA and I zipped up and down the motorway to attend the funeral of Ruth’s grandmother.

It went really well, but what I wanted to share with you today was two photos that I took at service stations along the the way.

Sign: "Alcohol purchases in this motorway service area can not be consumed inside or outside the premises."
A sign I discovered at a motorway service station.

This one confuses me a lot. If I buy alcohol from this service area, I can’t drink it either inside… or outside… the premises. Are they unlicensed, perhaps, and so the only way they’re allowed to sell us alcohol is if we promise not to drink it? Or is it perhaps the case that they expect us only to consume it when we’re in a parallel dimension?

Costa's slogan, "The Americano Addicts."
Costa have decided to cut down on graffiti by writing all over their own walls.

It’s hard to see in the second photo without clicking (to see it in large-o-vision), but the sign on the opposite wall in this Costa Coffee implies the possibility of being an “Americano Addict”. And there was something about that particular marketing tack that made me cringe.

Imagine that this was not a café but a bar, and substitute the names of coffees with the names of alcoholic beverages. Would it be cool to advertise your products to the “wine addicts” or the “beer addicts” of the world? No: because alcoholism isn’t hip and funny… but caffeine addiction is? Let’s not forget that caffiene is among the most-addictive drugs in the world. Sure, caffeine addiction won’t wreck your liver like alcohol will or give you cancer like smoking tobacco (the most-popular way to consume nicotine) will, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that there are many people for whom a dependency upon caffeine is a very real part of their everyday life.

Is it really okay to make light of this by using such a strong word as “addict” in Costa’s marketing? Even if we’re sticking with alliteration to fit in with the rest of their marketing, wouldn’t “admirer” or “aficionado” be better? And at least that way, Costa wouldn’t leave me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

All Noise, No Product

I’ve just come across a product called SonicNotify, and I’m wracking my brain to try to find a way to see it as a good idea. I’m struggling.

SonicNotify. You spray red noise into your audience, and their phones become infuriating. Or something.

The world is just coming to terms with spatial advertising and services that “link” to their mobile devices. I’ve quite enjoyed playing with QR codes, but there are plenty of other mechanisms enjoying some amount of exposure, such  as Bluejacking: in the early days of Bluetooth, some advertisers experimented with devices that would push out Bluetooth messages to anybody who strayed within range. Now that most Bluetooth devices capable of receiving such messages “switch off” Bluetooth after a couple of minutes, they need to be coupled with a visual medium that says, for example, “turn on Bluetooth to get our business card”, or something, which is slightly less insidious.

SonicNotify works by having a smartphone app that passively listens for high-frequency sound waves, which act as carriers to the marketing message. These messages can be broadcast at live events over existing PA systems, embedded in traditional media like radio or television, or transmitted from localised devices concealed in billboards or alongside products on shelves. Lady Gaga tried it out in a concert, in order to – I don’t know – distract her fans from actually listening to the music by giving them things to play with on their phones, instead.

Buy Doritos? I never would have thought of that on my own! Thanks, SonicNotify!

Let’s stop for a moment and think about everything that’s wrong with this idea:

  • I have to install a closed-source third-party app that runs in the background and keeps my microphone open at all times? We’ve got a name for that kind of device: a bug.
  • This app would presumably need to run the whole time, reducing battery lifespan and consuming clock cycles… and for what? So that I can see more advertisements?
  • Thinking about the technology – I’m not convinced that mobile phone microphones are well-equipped to be able to pick up ultrasonic waves with any accuracy, especially not once they’re muffled in a bag or trouser pocket. I can’t always even hear my phone ringing when it’s in my pocket, but it expects to be able to hear something “ringing” some distance away?
  • For that matter: television and radio speakers, and existing PA systems, aren’t really designed to be able to faithfully reproduce ultrasound, either. Why would they? A good entertainment system is one which sounds best at all of the frequencies that humans can hear. Anything else is useless.
  • And let’s not forget that different people have different hearing ranges. Thinking back to the controversies surrounding anti-youth alarm The Mosquito: do you really want to be surrounded by sharp, tinnitus-like noises just on the cusp of your ability to hear them?

No thank you, SonicNotify. I don’t think there’s mileage in this strange and quirky product idea.

Little Things

It’s all about the little things.

My dad died almost a fortnight ago when he lost his footing during a climb in the Lake District, and – since then – it’s felt like I’ve been involuntarily transplanted out of my life and into somebody else’s. I’ve only been in and out of work, and I’m glad to have done that: it’s added a semblance of normality to my routine. But most of my “new life” seems to consist of picking up the pieces of the jigsaw of my dad’s affairs and piecing them together into a meaningful picture.

An endless outpouring of sympathy cards adorn shelf after shelf in my dad’s house.

The big stuff is easy. Or, at least, it’s easy thanks to the support of my sisters and my mum. The big stuff isn’t small, of course, and it takes a significant effort to make sure it’s handled correctly: arranging a funeral and a wake, pouring over the mountains of paperwork in my dad’s files, and discussing what’s to ultimately be done with his house… those are all big things.

But the small things: they’re tough. The little things that sneak up on you when you least expect it. Last night, Becky and I were watching television when an advertisement came on.

We were both trying to work out what it was an advertisement for – perhaps some kind of holiday company? – as we watched a scene of a family (father, mother, and two teenage daughters) packing their bags and moving them into the hallway. The kids squeezed past their dad on the stairs and hugged their mother: “It won’t be the same, without dad,” said one.

The commercial was for life insurance, and it pulled a Sixth Sense (spoiler: Bruce Willis is dead the entire time) on us – the girls’ father wasn’t there at all.

That we happened to see that advertisement was a little thing, in the scale of things. But it’s the little things that are the hard ones.

Funeral’s tomorrow. I’d better finish writing this eulogy.

Amateur Lesbians

I’ve recently reformatted and reinstalled, and that means that – briefly – I ended up seeing advertisements on the Internet again, until I had my ad-blocker reinstalled. And so I came to see an advertisement that promised to let me see “amateur lesbians”.

Now you and I both know perfectly well what they mean, but I’ve always been amused by the term. It somehow carries the implication that there are “professional lesbians”, who aren’t just hobbyists or weekend-homosexuals. I get the image of a conversation along these lines:

A: “So, what do you do for a living?”

B: “Oh, I’m a lesbian.”

If there is such a thing as a professional lesbian, I wonder if it’s one of those careers that is protected from gender discrimination laws, so that it’s allowed to disallow men from applying. And I wonder if you can get a vocational qualification in the field: you know, a BTEC in Lesbianism or something. I also wonder if there are any perks to the job – I mean apart from the obvious: do you get a company car? Do you have to pay for your own uniform?

I wonder, sometimes, if I wonder about things a little too much.

Eat Bertha’s Mussels!

On the way back from Geek Night at Rory‘s, saw the following bumper sticker:

A little googling places it as belonging to a restaurant in Baltimore. But it caught my attention on the way back through Aberystwyth tonight, so I thought I’d share it. Perhaps the marketers among you can learn something from this compelling advertising campaign.

Right, time for bed.