Tech Life Why does such a user-hostile feature exist?

A Privacy Choice

I departed Safari several years ago for performance and stability issues. Too often, I was finding myself in a situation where Safari was wedged or just plain slow. As the majority of my time is spent staring at a browser, this was unacceptable, so I moved to Chrome. Yeah, the typography rendering wasn’t as good, and my bookmark bar looked like a circus, but it launched quickly and remained fast.

No major complaints. Chrome is frequently updated, the keyboard support is just fine, the browser is fast, and I can’t remember the last time the application crashed. Both bookmarks and extensions are stored in the cloud, so my settings gracefully followed me between machines. No complaints…

… but a lingering worry.

Apple’s 2017 WWDC was dense with announcements, but one feature stuck in my head: disabling auto-play videos with audio. There is no better way to destroy flow than having a random video start playing audio as I’m digesting the state of the world via Feedly. Chrome, like Safari, has a rich set of developer-friendly extensions to augment browser functionality, so I found one that disabled autoplay of videos. The problem? The plug-in I selected was garbage. It did an excellent job of blocking auto-play videos, but there are videos you want to auto-play like Netflix or YouTube and the process of whitelisting these “approved” sites was error-prone and laborious.

My ears perked up when Craig Federighi announce that Safari would block auto playing videos with audio. I’ve yet to see the feature work, but by having the feature engineered into the browser, I am expecting thoughtfulness with low friction affordances allowing sites where I want autoplay.

Disabling was the impetus for considering a migration back to Safari, but the more I considered the situation, the more it became a required migration. To understand my reasoning, consider why autoplay videos with sound exist at all. Why does such a user-hostile feature exist? It starts with a difference of perspective.

There are legitimate and moral businesses who just love interrupting your flow with their message because that is how they earn money. They are rewarded as a function of how effectively they can interrupt you. They do not see the harm in this, and they do not call it interruption: they call it good business.

This is how it started. There was a meeting years ago at one of these businesses when Boris in customer acquisition suggested, “Hey, let’s just auto-play a video with sound and see what happens?” and every single other person in the meeting laughed loudly at him. They said what you and I know, “People are going to hate it. I’d hate it.”

Boris stood his ground and suggested, “Hold it, hold it. Let’s just test one page and one video for a month and see what the data says.” The rest of the team begrudgingly agreed because the company had this value painted on the walls that read, “Data wins arguments.”

Not surprisingly, the resulting data was incredible. Both awareness and other measures were way up. No one bothered to run an NPS survey, and no one bothered to look at the complaints to customer support because the data on hand were both blindingly delightful… and profitable.

It is this difference in perspective that has me back on Safari. It is not that I believe Google is evil (they aren’t) or that their browser is substandard (it’s exceptional). It’s that I’m certain there are Boris-like meetings going on all the time and they are packed with intelligent, rationale, and well-intentioned humans whose perspective is, “We need to run a healthy business, and our business is advertising.”

Google has a compelling answer to not just autoplay ads with audio, but also pop-up ads and interstitial ads that obscure the whole page. They’re planning on banning them via recommendations of the Coalition for Better Ads not only because people hate them, but because this hate is driving us to install ad-blocking software that doesn’t just block these heinous ads, this software also blocks the tracking that allows 3rd party sites track user behavior.1 The latter of which is an advertiser’s bread and butter.

Google’s business is a function of their ability to convince other businesses that they have the most efficient means of delivering relevant Ad X to Targeted Human Y so that they’ll purchase Product Z. I have zero issue with Google building a multi-bajillion business convincing the Planet Earth that they are best in class in ad delivery efficiency (they are), but I am not convinced that Google’s interests align with mine.

Google’s compelling answer to ban heinous ads does not include affordances to block tracking, and I wouldn’t expect them to because they are an advertising company.2 That’d be like requiring Apple to legally embrace shitty typography. No way. Apple’s business is design, and that means Apple will prioritize low-friction useful and approachable elegance no matter what.

Google privacy policy is vast and worth a read. There is an army of privacy-minded humans in the Google privacy organization, and I trust they are trying to do the right thing about privacy. It is not this team’s intent where I have concerns. It is not the meetings they are invited to that I care about, it’s the meeting where privacy is not represented.

There is no nefarious reason they weren’t invited to this hypothetical meeting. It’s just a quick strategy meeting on a topic seemingly unrelated to privacy, and it results in an inconsequential decision that creates a privacy crack. It’s a tiny little space that no one is going to notice for years until someone somewhere else on the planet is going to find a clever way to use that crack for nefarious or semi-nefarious for-profit activities that also violates your privacy.

And I’m not even worried about this one meeting. I’m worried about all of the meetings and the collective compounding impact of all the small seemingly inconsequential decisions in a company where the business is selling advertising versus a company where the business is selling product.

I have great respect for the engineering teams building Safari and Chrome. They are building a window into the Internet, and the Internet is a hostile, for-profit, lying beast that actively fights the good intentions and well-debated choices of engineers and designers. Tough gig.3

But I get a choice.

I’m fine with advertising. It funds media and services I trust and depend upon. I appreciate ads that deliver value to me. I understand the more a company knows about me, the better they can deliver me ads I care about, but if that is their core business, I will forever question their motivations regarding the ethical use of my personal information.

I choose a business that began as a company building products to empower the individual. Apple has spent decades making approachable, functional, and aesthetically pleasing technology for the individual and this bolsters their claim they want to protect the privacy of the individual.

That’s my choice.4

  1. I’m continuing to use Adblock Plus, and as part of the research for this piece, I started using Disconnect.Me. It appears Disconnect.Me duplicates tracking blocking in Adblock Pro, but I like the visual map that Disconnect.Me gives me regarding trackers. 
  2. Via Disconnect.Me, you will see four trackers on Rands: Google Analytics, Chartbeat, Twitter, and Gravatar. I’m planning on removing or replacing each of them all. With the demise of Mint, I’m in the market for self-hosted analytics. Drop me a note. 
  3. I’m also evaluating the Brave browser. First impression: many rough edges. 
  4. HTTPS is coming for Rands. I’ve got the certificate all set-up, but the process of converting the rest of the site is… laborious. 

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14 Responses

  1. ~cgrayson linked to this.
  2. Piwik seems to be the most reasonable self-hosted option, though in my experience it’s a bit high-maintenance.

  3. By the way; both on Safari 10.1.1 and on the lastest Firefox Nightly, text filled into the Name/Email/Website fields on this piece is not visible (despite the caret moving).

  4. Karellen 7 years ago

    Not even considering Firefox? Or do you have a long-standing issue with it that you expect to remain unresolved indefinitely…?

  5. andomar 7 years ago

    You probably mean AdBlock Plus instead of AdBlock Pro?

  6. Saw your note about Mint and I loved the service too. I have been pointing people to Metabase as an option as it’s self hosted and free. I am biased as it’s out of Expa where I work, but considering the price I hope you don’t mind the outreach.

  7. Steve Jones 7 years ago

    I’ve found EFF’s Privacy Badger extension to work very well for blocking trackers. It learns who’s trying to track you and either blocks them outright or just doesn’t store the relevant cookies. If an ad doesn’t use tracking, then it lets it through. There are occasional issues with it overzealously blocking CDNs, but you can override its choice in those situations.

    It’s browser-only at the moment, so not a device-wide solution, but works very well on the desktop.

  8. cmdrlinux 7 years ago

    Does your opinion change at all given the news today that Google is testing autoplaying ads in search results?

  9. Mayson Lancaster 7 years ago

    I find I’m using the “Kill Sticky” bookmarklet dozens of times a day to eliminate distracting, screen-real-estate-consuming navigation bars, share buttons, and other wastes of screen.

  10. There’s a reason why you didn’t choose Let’s Encrypt for your domain? Especially with WordPress it’s a breeze to set it up!

  11. Instead of Adblock X/Y/Z Family, I would highly recommend Better by; which is specifically built for Safari ( both OSX + iOS ). Much better tracker handling and customised anti-adblocker script anon conflict of interest like in many other adblock efforts. I am not affiliated by the vendor – but I really admire his work.

  12. That “vast” privacy policy by Google is at least readable and much, much shorter than the iTunes one. How can Apple write such a monstrosity for iTunes?!