Micah White is upset:

The vast library that is the internet is flooded with so many advertisements that many people claim not to notice them anymore. Ads line the top and right of the search results page, are displayed next to emails in Gmail, on our favourite blog, and beside reportage of anti-corporate struggles. As evidenced by the tragic reality that most people can’t tell the difference between ads and content any more, this commercial barrage is having a cultural impact.

The danger of allowing an advertising company to control the index of human knowledge is too obvious to ignore. The universal index is the shared heritage of humanity. It ought to be owned by us all. No corporation or nation has the right to privatise the index, commercialise the index, censor what they do not like or auction search ranking to the highest bidder. We have public libraries. We need a public search engine.

Well . . . if advertising is the problem, then “a public search engine” won’t solve the problem, will it? We wouldn’t see ads while searching, but we would see them as soon as we arrived at the pages we were searching for. Moreover, if it’s wrong to have ads next to reportage online, then presumably it’s wrong to have ads in the paper version of the Guardian, in magazines, and on television as well.

What exactly is White asking for? A universal prohibition on internet advertising, brokered by the U.N.? An international tribunal to prosecute Google for unauthorized indexing? Yes, it would have been wonderful, as Robert Darnton has pointed out, if universities and libraries had banded together to do the information-indexing and book-digitizing that Google has done — but they didn’t.

So here we are, with an unprecedented and astonishing amount of information at our fingertips, and we’re going to complain about ads? — the same ads that give us television, newspapers, and magazines? Please. Why not just come right out and say “I want everything and I want it for free”?

Google gives us plenty to complain about; I have deeply mixed feelings about the company myself, as I have often articulated. But the presence of online ads ought to be the least of our worries.

(Update: here’s Darnton on the possibility of creating a national digital library.)


  1. Where is the evidence to support the author's assertion that it is a "tragic reality that most people cannot tell the difference between ads and content anymore"? I'm no genius, but I'm pretty sure when I visit CNN.com I can tell the "Universal Weight Loss Breakthrough" on the side is an ad and not an article. And if I can figure that one out, I imagine most other folks can too. One sure sign of an intellectual elitist is the belief that what is obvious to him or her is completely over the head of "most people".

  2. Every once in a while I get these really weird reminders of how different the internet must be to people who don't use AdBlock.

    It's actually hard for me to grasp the idea that other people (Alan Jacobs, even?!) are living in a parallel universe, a dystopia where most web pages have advertisements on them. Brr.

  3. Oh, AdBlock and ClickToFlash are my BFFs. But even if you don't use them, plain old text ads from Google, which White is complaining about, are minimally offensive. If he were moaning about animated GIFs or Flash ads it would be a different story.

  4. It's not so much that advertisements are offensive as that they are distracting. It's hard enough to focus sustained attention on anything when you're browsing the web without some huckster, no matter how polite, constantly waving at you from the corner of your eye and saying, "Excuse me sir, sorry to interrupt, but I thought maybe you'd be interested in buying this?"

    But it's good to be reminded of the people living in the other universe that has ads on the web. Next time someone says something stupid online, keep in mind that, while composing his comment, his attention was likely broken several times (Harrison Bergeron-style) by someone trying to sell him something.

  5. I have not met one person who has ever confused "content" and an ad. Ever. But since Micah White apparently does not have the mental capacity to perform that very rudimentary exercise, why would anyone be remotely interested in anything she has to say?

    Bob in Texas

  6. "Why not just come right out and say “I want everything and I want it for free”?"

    There is something called taxation, that could fund a public search engine. We have "public options" in many areas: health (Medicare), mail (USPS), transit (NYC Subway).

    I've written extensively on search engines, and I come to the same conclusion as White. Perhaps if you consult the work of Siva Vaidhyanathan, or Alex Halavais (Search Engine Society), or Felix Stalder (Deep Search), you will, too.

  7. Outside the economic argument…um, Wikipedia? Not only is it ad-free, but it, while not a search engine, represents a comparatively huge chunk of top search results on Google.

    Also, with Chrome, search has moved even more directly into the browser (i.e. an ad-free interface). Open a new tab, type in "en." and Chrome will, via selectable drop-down, direct your search to Wikipedia. (This works for other engines as well; type in "yahoo" or "bing" and the same functionality applies.)

    In other words, we have a search interface (browser) and an impossibly huge & growing reference (Wikipedia), both absolutely free.

    The dumb, it hurts.

  8. Frank Pasquale, what is this "taxation" you speak of? A new word to me.

    Also, how would a public search engine get rid of the chief source of White's complaint, ads that "are displayed next to emails in Gmail, on our favourite blog, and beside reportage of anti-corporate struggles"?

  9. While online ads are part of the problem, the other part of the problem with google is that some search results are directed commercially. That is at the most popular type of results.

    This is good in that it allows a sort of democratic process for determining what is a good source of information. However it can be bad when something becomes popular because of notoriety, etc or because of a flashy ad campaign (and money to google).

    A public search engine ran by librarians might source sites based on how well researched they were and the quality of the information they offered. One could see the difference in how people accessed info say on global warming, the building of mosques etc.

    The ad content on the sides is less of an issue

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