“Ad blocking” should be considered as a “Privacy Protection Right”

India is presently in the process of re-writing some of the Cyber laws regarding

a) Privacy… through the Supreme Court’s view on whether Privacy is a Fundamental Right?

b) Data Protection Act under drafting

c) Health Data Privacy Act under drafting

d) TRAI draft guideline on Privacy under discussion

e) Information Technology Act

We can presume that Supreme Court will say that “Privacy” is a “Fundamental Right” of an Indian Citizen subject to “Reasonable Restrictions”. It may make some lofty noises but will not make much change in the Privacy Environment. More will be done through the other laws.

In the meantime, another issue has cropped up in the Cyber Space on “Ad Blocking” which has been challenged under “Copyright” legislation as if “Advertisement is a fundamental right” of business and removal would be an offence. (See this article for more information)

In India, ITA 2000 defines any “Program” that “Without the permission of the owner of the computer”, “diminishes the value or utility of a service”, which should include unauthorized use of “My Bandwidth usage Rights” as a “Computer Contaminant”. Introduction of such Computer contaminants is a cognizable offence under Section 66 of ITA 2000/8 read with Section 43.

Unfortunately the clarity that “Advertisements” could be considered as “Computer Contaminants” have not been properly recognized by Law enforcers and Consumers and hence no action is being taken when consumers are being cheated by Advertisers.

Many times content is being completely covered by Ads repeatedly or video ads starting rolling as soon as we visit a website etc. This menace has now started affecting the Mobile Users also to the extent that “Ad Supported Apps” have become a nightmare to the content/service users.

There are many instances when without the knowledge of the App owners, Obscene ads and invitation to pornographic websites are appearing even in mobile apps meant for common usage. I have pointed out such issues in “Google Ads” in one Radio app and have also seen it in the Chess Online App. This indicates that whatever filters are supposed to block such ads at the end of the ad supplier, is not working.

“Ad Blocking” has therefore become a necessary requirement at the user end as a “Consumer Right”. However many content providers including media websites have started a trend to block content unless the AdBlocker is removed. The recent DMCA attack on “Easylist” which was asked to remove a site from its filter. This may snow ball into a serious fight between greedy content providers and the Consumers.

While Advertisement industry (of which I was a part in the past) has a legitimate reason to exist, it has to recognize that Advertisement has to be an appendage to content and not the other way round. The media trend now in print started by Times Group is that the first page of a news paper is an Advertisement and content starts only from the third or fourth page.

Paid content on TV channels are also more than proportionately covered by Advertising to the extent that consumers feel like paying for the ads more than for the content. Initially TRAI tied to block advertisements in paid channels but the commercial strength of the TV channels over powered the TRAI and brought advertisements even into paid channels.

The “Rule of Proportionality” between content and advertising has been given a go by in the Print and the TV and it is slowly creeping into the web and mobile. We need to preserve this through the forthcoming changes in Cyber Laws that address “Privacy”.

While static ads that take a banner in the bottom or top is mostly tolerated, the so called “Intersticial Ads” that cover the entire page and does not allow the content to be displayed until the ad goes off is an encroachment of the “Privacy” of the content user and has to be condemned.

Similarly the video ads that start playing on a website as soon as the page is loaded without waiting for the user to chose whether he has to run the ad or not eats away the bandwidth that the consumer has bought at a cost for browsing the content and not the ads. Such ads take more than 100% of the band width otherwise required for the content viewing. Since all ISPs are stakeholders in this “Bandwidth bloating game” all of them are happy with such ads. Only the consumer is unhappy.

There is no doubt that content owners justify their right to advertisement because of the contractual consent they may try to obtain by some standard form contract terms hidden some where in the website which may not even be confirmed by the digitally signed means of clicking on the “I Accept” button.

It should therefore be ruled that “Ad Blocking” is a “Fundamental Right” along with the “Privacy Right” and cannot be abrogated by contract which any way most of the times is an implied contract only.

I therefore urge that the Privacy Laws that are being drafted now should define “Advertisements” as an “Intrusion of Privacy” and “Ad Blocking” should not be considered as a “Right” either under Copyright laws or Free speech consideration.

If for some reason, our Supreme Court fails to recognize this, I wish ITA 2000 amendment should recognize this and introduce a clause to recognize that

“Unsolicited Ad serving on web or mobile should be considered as a “Spam” and subject to “Reasonable Restrictions”.

Such reasonable restrictions should include by way of “Rules” that the ad content on a mobile or  a webpage should not exceed 10% of the visible space and the total bandwidth usage by ads should not exceed 15% of the total bandwidth required for the page.

Any excess should be specifically authorized each time by an affirmative consent which should be recorded and made auditable by relevant authorities.

Any contravention should be made punishable by way of civil compensation to the consumer as well as fine just as TRAI does on contravention of unsolicited call blocking norms.

One more regulation that needs to be considered is that

When a service is contracted by a user (eg: when an app is first installed or a Privacy Policy version is frozen on the website), whatever was the advertisement composition, should not be increased after the installation without express consent.

The above suggestions can also be made to TRAI since it has placed the consultation paper for public comment upto September 22, 2017.

Since “Privacy” is a “Right to be Left Alone”, the “Ad Blocking” can be considered as protection of this “Right to be left alone to use the content” without the intrusion of the Advertisements. The honourable Supreme Court should take note of this and if possible, make a suitable observation.

Putting a regulation on Advertisements across all media should mitigate the risk of commercialization of web and mobile services and preserve the “Net Neutrality” principle also.

I hope TRAI will give due thought to the need to put a control on the Advertisements and appropriately draft their rules on Privacy protection. (We shall separately discuss the consultation paper in a subsequent article)

Naavi

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