In privacy-focused, anti-establishment corners of the internet, going open source can earn you a certain amount of street cred. It signals that you not only have nothing to hide, but also welcome the rest of the world to help make your project better. For Ghostery though, the company that makes Edward Snowden’s recommended ad blocker, publishing all its code on GitHub Thursday also means clearing up some confusion about its past.
Before Ghostery was acquired last year by Cliqz, a privacy-focused web browser, the company’s revenue scheme invited some skepticism. Ghostery made money when users opted-in to share data about what kinds of ad trackers they encountered across on the web. Ghostery then sold that data to companies like ecommerce websites, which used it to better understand why, say, their website wasn’t loading very quickly.
Many of Ghostery’s users struggled to understand the company’s old, complicated business model. And on its face, it just looked like Ghostery was selling user data—precisely what you don’t want from a privacy tool designed to block ads and trackers. “It was never a really great fit for Ghostery the consumer product,” says Jeremy Tillman, Ghostery’s director of product management.
So along with going open source, Ghostery is also announcing two new, simpler ways it plans to make money. The efforts provide a window into how a user-focused company might survive on the internet without violating customer trust—and borrow a page from publishers and content creators already eager to wean themselves from ad-based revenue.
The first part of the new business model will be Ghostery Insights, a paid, premium product designed for academics, journalists, researchers, and anyone else curious about the webpage and tracker ecosystem online. It’s not yet available—and not clear yet what analytics will be included—but the company says they expect it to arrive later this year.
‘The problem I think with what Google is doing with their so-called ad blockers, is that it’s really designed to enforce and support their current business model.’
Jeremy Tillman, Ghostery
The second part will be Ghostery Rewards, a kind of affiliate marketing system that users can opt into. Designed to be light touch, it will periodically notify you about deals, like a discount on a travel package or a pair of pants. Relevant offers will pop up when you visit say, a travel site or ecommerce platform. In one sense, Ghostery is removing all the ads from the web, and then replacing some of them with its own. But unlike traditional web advertisements, Ghostery Rewards are exclusive to those who use the tool. They’re also meant to be genuinely useful for consumers.
Ghostery Rewards is similar to the affiliate marketing used by publications like Mashable and Gizmodo Media Group, as well as by independent bloggers. (WIRED also receives affiliate revenue on some linked products.) “It’s 100 percent conversion based,” says Tillman. “That’s pretty much the target goal of the campaign, it’s not impression based, it’s not really for them to build brand awareness.”
That’s a very different model from other popular ad blockers, like Adblock Plus, which is also free for users but makes money through its “acceptable ads program.” If ads meet certain criteria outlined by the company, it lets them through—if they agree to split advertising revenue gained by whitelisting with Adblock Plus. The company also began selling its own, less intrusive ads in late 2016.
The decision to become an open-source company also has its own implications for Ghostery. At this point, dozens of major tech companies and even the US government contribute code to the public that can be used by anyone. Adblock Plus is also open source. By opening up, Ghostery is allowing a potentially more diverse group of software developers to help find holes in its system. That could be beneficial, but there’s also the risk that by exposing its code, Ghostery could make itself vulnerable to ad-track developers who aim to circumvent them. “At this point, it’s pretty well known how Ghostery and other tracker blockers work, even before going open-source,” says Tillman. “There will always be a cat-and-mouse game with advertisers that are trying to find new ways to evade our technology but, if anything, going open-source should empower our community of contributors to help keep Ghostery ahead of the curve.”
Deciding to go open source, along with the new revenue streams, represent the second time in the last couple of months that Ghostery has tried to differentiate itself from other ad-tracking tools. In December, the company announced it was going to begin using artificial intelligence to automatically detect new tracking scripts. That’s a departure from the standard practice of comparing scripts that appear on a website to a predetermined list of unwelcome trackers. In other words, Ghostery now attempts stop trackers it hasn’t seen before, ostensibly giving it a leg up on the competition.
Ghostery needs to provide as much utility as it can to users, especially in a market where tech’s biggest players have rolled out their own built-in ad-blocking tools. Google, for example, introduced a feature for Chrome last month that will block ads on sites that engage in especially annoying behavior, like automatically playing sound. The tech giant, which makes most of its money from advertising, ultimately hopes the change will help stop people from downloading tools like Ghostery that block ads entirely. Firefox also blocked tracking in private browsing mode in 2015, and Apple brought tracker-blocking to Safari last year.
“The problem I think with what Google is doing with their so-called ad blockers, is that it’s really designed to enforce and support their current business model,” says Tillman.
But ad blocking doesn’t merely threaten Google’s business, it also negatively impacts that of publishers and independent content creators. It’s a tension that Ghostery is aware of, even if its new monetization efforts don’t address it directly. “We recognize that the digital economy needs an engine of monetization,” says Tillman. “Any long-term solution needs to include content creators and publishers.”
The ad-based system that supports the digital economy is broken, and often sacrifices user privacy. Many digital publications have already spent years working on new revenue models. For now though, invasive ads remain a part of the web, and even the people who block them need to make a living. Ghostery, at least, is trying to do so in a way that doesn’t make the problem even worse.
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