Another reason to block ads

Verizon’s data-sharing with AOL is worrisome, but not surprising

There was never any chance Verizon would refrain from bolstering AOL’s advertising network with the information it collects from its customers. The carrier paid $4.4 billion for an ad-dependent business; it’s not going to leave that business to its own devices, at least not where revenues are concerned.

So, it should come as little shock that Verizon planned to connect its “zombie cookies” — trackers that collect data from unencrypted connections unless a consumer opts out of the program — with AOL’s advertising network so it can better target specific demographics, as ProPublica reported earlier this week.

The zombie cookies allow advertisers to learn about someone’s “gender, age range, and interests.” When asked for comment on the information-sharing, a spokesperson linked to a blog post in which Verizon chief privacy officer Karen Zacharia says the data will only be shared to “Verizon companies, including AOL, and to a select set of other companies that help Verizon provide services.”

AOL’s Tim Armstrong defended the plan on Wednesday. “If consumers don’t trust you it’s not worth whatever you’re going to do with the data,” Armstrong said, according to a report from AOL-owned TechCrunch. “Verizon is probably more sensitive to data than most Internet companies.” He then compared data to oil and said information and fossil fuels can be used in good or bad ways.

Those defenses won’t carry much weight. There’s still something unsettling about knowing that one of the nation’s largest wireless carriers will be sharing information with an all-but-omnipresent ad network to assist its targeting. Verizon customers didn’t sign up for that when they decided to use the wireless network, nor when they visited any of the sites serving AOL’s advertisements.

Which lends some more credence to the idea that people might wish to install ad blockers. A spokesperson from Eyeo, the company behind AdBlock Plus, told me the tool “can technically help users to defend themselves against this kind of tracking.” Combine the desire to maintain a little bit of privacy with the time and money to be saved by using an ad-blocker, and it seems like a no-brainer.

Those benefits are especially funny when Verizon is involved. Using an ad-blocker to cut down on the amount of mobile data used could prevent many people from having to pay for going over their monthly data limit, while also preventing the company’s shiny multibillion-dollar acquisition of AOL from paying off because people don’t want its ad network to learn more about them.

Still, the company must be given credit for its efforts to let people know about the change. As Zacharia explains in her response to ProPublica’s reporting:

We are alerting customers who are eligible for these programs in the following ways: we’ve posted a notice on our website; customer bills will contain a message notifying them; and those customers for whom we have an email address will also receive an email notification.

I went through the process myself, and while it was frustrating having to “save changes” for every section within Verizon’s privacy controls, it was nice to have everything available right there. Who knows when I’ll have to switch everything off again (companies have a knack for forgetting someone’s preferences, at least where data collection is concerned) but for now it seems like everything’s good.

I’ll still leave the ad-blockers enabled, though. Verizon isn’t the only company trying to collect more information with what Walt Mossberg described as “a form of spyware, scooping up information about what people do online without their knowledge and permission.” So long as that remains true, it seems like a good idea to block ads, even if gives the media industry a series of panic attacks.