New Post: Is Ethical Advertising Possible?

Is ethical advertising possible? We all certainly know unethical advertising is possible, we live with it every day. The ad-driven Internet has created an insatiable hunger for personal data and as a result most of what the average person does in their web browser, or on their phone, and in real life is being measured, tracked, and sold to some degree. Yet if a company actually cared about your privacy and wanted to advertise its products, could it do so ethically? Can you track what a visitor does on your website without violating their privacy? We have been thinking about these issues heavily at Purism as we consider how to expand our marketing and in this article I’m going to explore where we currently are in our thinking.

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Modern ad tech doesn’t have to listen to your conversations to know what you want. It knew you wanted that thing before you told your friend about it, based on all of your other behavior online. You simply noticed this time because the topic was top of mind.

This was a pretty interesting idea. I had heard people claim that they talked about something and then started receiving ads about that something. I always assumed it was just coincidence mostly just due to the technical challenges of listening to every conversation at the same time. I hadn’t really thought that it really is creepier that it is a coincidence. “They” didn’t have to listen to every conversation because they already knew your thoughts about whatever you were talking about. Very interesting.

A funny and slightly related story. I backed a crowd-funded privacy-focused app on Kickstarter a while back. They had some issues with Kickstarter based emails that caused a lot of frustration with backers. So they quickly switched to another email provider. The provider they ended up with was Constant Contact. The first email sent using Constant Contact included a UTM tracking link. I replied to the email and questioned that link. They responded and agreed that it was not ideal and suggested they would continue looking for other options for email providers. Constant Contact was a quick and easy solution to their email problems. I didn’t ask specifically, but I am guessing that Constant Contact automatically replaces all links with tracking links. And even though the privacy app company may not want to use the data from that link, they don’t know what Constant Contact is doing with that data. So, it’s not always easy to respect the privacy of your customers (even if you want to) if you have to use third-party tools.

It’s likely. A lot of email marketing platforms want to have a similar level of visibility into email marketing performance, as website performance. There is a notion in that world that more data = better. That’s why they add tracking pixels so they can tell when people open HTML emails, and unique UTM links so then know which recipient clicked on an email in a campaign (beyond just having a UTM link that said something like utm_campaign=email-2022-06).

A lot of these things are just on by default with these tools because the assumption is of course you’d want them. Because almost no one has questioned them in the past, often it’s challenging to get them turned off.

Self-hosting is certainly a better approach because you have more control but even there, often the tools come from the position of full tracking by default. When those tools do track, it often takes a lot of detective work to root out all the privacy issues, and if you make a mistake, your customer base will likely accuse you of hypocrisy. That’s one reason we are trying to take cautious, thoughtful steps here. I’m dreading the day that one of the tools we use accidentally turns on a feature that goes too far (or had it on by default and we didn’t notice), before we can detect it.


“they pay per click” gave me an idea of “add follower”. A piece of software that would use the same filters as ad blocker, but would go and “click” on every ad it found. In a background, so I would not see it. I can spare some bandwidth and processing power on that. This would render the clicking data more expensive for ad producers and the tracking data would be at the same time made less relevant.

Making ads expensive and useless at the same time - I daresay they would likely die a natural death then.

I hate ads. They are a distraction and a nuisance on first sight, and there is more evil behind them, as described in this new post. The ads should live only in places dedicated only to them.


I appreciate you taking on such a tough topic. I agree that for most people, it is all or nothing. It seems difficult to determine the line where marketing/promoting a privacy-enhancing company crosses over into creepy territory where you “become that which you hate.”

not just free software geeks

Yes that’s me :sweat_smile: :sweat_smile:

As for suggestions, one thing that would go a long way in my mind is a data monetization statement by Purism. One of the most elegant that I have seen is from the Signal Messenger Terms of Service:

Privacy of user data. Signal does not sell, rent or monetize your personal data or content in any way – ever.

Does Purism already have something like this posted somewhere? Purism has the below statement on their Policies page, but I am not sure if it will be compatible with making advertising decisions based on analytics?

  1. Your personal data are exclusively used for the processing of contracts made between you and us. Under no circumstances will the data collected be used beyond of the contractual purpose, or otherwise sold to third parties.

Anyway, I think a statement more like Signal’s might be a big improvement for giving peace of mind to Purism patrons. As Purism does begin to collect more data through analytics software, a statement in simple terms that Purism will not monetize that data would be very beneficial.

Also, regarding:

People who don’t yet know about Big Tech alternatives use those platforms, and those platforms are a prime way we can reach them.

Trying to help people break out of the Google/Facebook tracking/manipulation/control prison by paying Google or Facebook for ads seems. . . highly flawed. By all means, maintain accounts on those platforms as a lifeline to the people living in dystopia, but I think paying for Google or Facebook ads is beyond the pale. For example, I am imagining a situation where someone buys a Librem 5 to break free from using a phone that uses Google’s Android OS, but then Purism takes the revenue from the Librem 5 sale and pays it to Google in exchange for Google ads (or Facebook, Twitter ads, etc.). That situation would be truly flabbergasting, and it would seemingly undermine Purism’s social purpose:

The Corporation will prioritize privacy, security, and freedom for its customers

Buying creepy ads from Facebook or Google doesn’t seem to align with this value.

Obviously, I love a ton of things about Purism. One of those things that I love is this sort of transparency as Purism explores a difficult topic. Keep up the good work!

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Our goal is to avoid collecting personal data as part of analytics. The policy you quoted is relevant as the personal data we do collect from customers is just so we can ship people the things they buy and in that context I do think our policy is as powerful and forceful a statement as Signal’s. “Under no circumstances” is equally strong, it’s just more wordy.

I really appreciate all of your feedback. It’s useful to know that this is where you personally would draw the line. We have tested advertising on those platforms in the past and will likely do so in the future and I don’t necessarily agree that doing so violates our social purpose. That said, which ad platforms, if any, would you be OK with, considering there is a strong chance those platforms ultimately also pay the platforms you find objectionable?

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This may be a point that is not explored enough. What is enough with data, how much is needed to know and where is the balance. It’s not just about accuracy and privacy consideration but also how much allocation of resources is efficient and when are the benefits maximized. I don’t think this is clear to most - endless hoarding of data for data’s sake is kinda nuts from business perspective. Not just because it costs to get, store, sort and usually requires a lot of energy (literally and metaphorically) to handle. And still it only paints a limited inaccurate picture. It has been suggested that it would be wiser and more beneficial to plan to aim for a level of fuzzyness and actually define how much is really needed to get good enough image - for marketing targeting to strategic decisions. There might be better, more productive uses for resources than the quest for the tiniest detail (which usually is not even data or fact but indicative conjecture based on statistics), kinda what the blog was referring to with “10000$ to get 1000$”. Especially if (via GDPR, common decency or something else) personal info is considered “radio active”, a liability (the requirement and cost of protecting it). So, an argument for “strategic fuzzyness” is not just for principle but about managing business right.

In the early days of the Internet, websites would add meta tags to their pages that would list the topics the web page covered, similar to modern hashtags in social media.

This is not even the earliest way to game searches. In a time before tags there was the method of hiding “invisible text” (same color as the background) with all kinds of words to pages to get them listed at searches. The unscrupulous used porn-related vocabulary, unsurprisingly, to get interested users to visit. Gaming a system, or optimizing what can be done with it, is a hacking trait - a force for good and evil. I wish it would lead to optimizing the minimum amount of information and not this un-optimized hoarding.

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There is an enormous amount of ways of reaching several different people, today more than ever, without using whole page ads that force the user to watch it for 30 minutes else their device will catch fire.

I have several untested ideas and of course with all marketing efforts, all of it must be individually measured for its returns. And a brainstorm of possible specific candidates must be done on each of these suggestions and individually vetted later on. And with the survivors, reach out, reach out, learn with the prospecting experience and adjust, adjust. With this, large and small deals will likely come through.

Also, not all of these requires “burning” marketing money. Some have no risk at all.

Alternative ad networks, like Carbon, Ethicalads, Contextcue and maybe others I am unaware of.

Sponsoring with small amounts several small and big software projects, physical projects, educational projects, tools, conferences, events, newsletters, blogs and e-magazines around the privacy, security and freedom industry. Always being mentioned somewhere in their communications and/or homepages or somewhere else folks interested in that endeavor will see.

Hosting things people would normally not pay for, for example hosting federated instances of social and chat apps and bringing in people from these crowds, can be related to the kind of endeavors I mentioned above or not. Make sure everyone knows who the host it and what you offer.

Partnership deals with others who already sell things to these industries, but are not competitors to your offering. Not only in the digital world. Who they already buy from? Share your catalog of products over some other shop’s page or physical store, not just computer shops. Perhaps using some printed press to reach visitors to physical stores is something that can be tested.
This one is huge, if I were you, I would invest a lot, most of my efforts, in this one and the next one.
High returns and small risk.

Include your devices into another company’s corporate security package that they sell to corporations out there.
I mean, who is one of the largest toys sellers in the world? A restaurant called Mc’Donalds, through their Happy Meal. Distribute the toys to Mc’Donalds yourself. Hopefully you can see how huge this is.

Referral program, if you have, double down on it. Ask people to share the word, both clients and non clients. To share with their team members, family, friends and test give them a month or six for librem one services for each sale they bring in. Or test not giving anything physical in return, it is not needed, but make sure you ask that in your communications! Many do out of wanting to give a nice experience to others.

Affiliates program. Pay people who sell your products for you through their media channels. That is why they gathered their audiences in the first place.

Get your blog as a partner in other blogs, remember the old “blog rings” we had back then? With blogs having a list of “friendly blogs” or whatever they call? This. Bring back old tactics, both in the web and in the physical world. Just make sure you are comfortable showcasing them back!
Is guest posting old already? It totally fits a content marketing tactic.

Present devices at business and enthusiast conferences and make sure you try to close business deals at these and also get yourself mentioned in digital channels for mass visibility to try to get consumer sales afterwards from digital channels.

You yourself sell other people’s products that will increase your profit per sale. This also may be a big one, but also must be done carefully to not burn your audience. Again, test with small groups, get feedback, etc.

Create apps and tools for people in these industries that will showcase who you are. For example Balena Etcher, this app of theirs mention themselves without being intrusive, while the USB is being processed, they display a small phrase on the side talking about them.
There is a difference between a youtuber saying “hey buy my course” and a forced 30 seconds beer ad in an educational video, and next time another ad, and another, all forced.
For example you can create something with a GUI that professionals will use, like the Etcher example I shared.

There is so much that can be done! So much attention-getting real estate out there that can be grabbed, tested, folded or multiplied! Aggressively telling people about your offer does not have to be intrusive. You can be everywhere without hurting people’s mental context.


Some readers may not be familiar with the idea of the “uncanny valley” so I include an explanation:

Being a socially responsible corporation seems like a lot of extra work. It’s also interesting that advertising is simply something that cannot be avoided if you expect to grow beyond nominal boundaries.

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It is probably buried as a few small clauses in your regular business policy, but you also probably have advertising insurance.

Disagreed. The second statement is maye more technical, but also more precise. Contractual purposes are rather clear based on context, but what does “monetize” mean? Is selling laptops not “monetization”? It gives money, and it requires customer’s shipping data, after all. Confusing. If I dig that deep, I want clarity, because I expect every unclear term to be abused.

What do you find objectionable here? I’m far away from Purism’s marketing strategy, just curious. In my personal view, the ads are not compromising any user’s privacy because they are only shown to those who have already given it up.

For me, the issue would be further enabling and perpetuating Google’s and Facebook’s business model, which they ultimately use to abuse our privacy.


I can appreciate your point. Part of my reason for raising the issue is:

However, if Purism successfully avoids linking analytics to individuals (making it “personal data”), then I believe Kyle has successfully answered my concern.

In answer to your other question,

I agree with @amarok. For some people, even having accounts (which help to generate traffic and the attractiveness of the platform) is too far over the line in terms of supporting and perpetuating Google and Facebook’s abusive, controlling, and exploitative businesses. I see that as a close call. On the other hand, when it comes to actually paying revenue from freedom and privacy products and services into Google and Facebook’s advertising regimes, I see a clear conflict with Purism’s explicit values.

This is a very good question, and I haven’t been ignoring it, but I don’t have a good answer yet. I know that it’s not very constructive of me to criticize without being prepared to suggest a better solution, but I will have to research and think about it more. Google and Facebook are absolutely ubiquitous on the web, but that is part of why I see it as crucial to freedom long-term to support more ethical alternatives.


It’s completely fine, that’s the purpose of this dialogue. We are also trying to think through and research these questions internally. Because if the line is “don’t give Google/FB money” then it’s like a trade embargo and like trade embargoes, you have to decide how many degrees of separation you allow. Can you pay other organizations that themselves pay Google or FB for services (essentially laundering the funds to use strong language or indirectly supporting them to use weak language)? If that’s not allowed then you have dramatically reduced your options as we all know how difficult it is to completely remove yourself from that ecosystem, especially for non-geeks. That could also mean we would have to avoid sponsoring content or providing reviews to people on YouTube with monetized accounts (and possibly also non-monetized accounts since YouTube can earn revenue with ads from those as well).

Beyond all of that is the question of how to inform people who don’t know about us who may only see ads on those networks and may not visit alternative search engines, alternative social media, etc, if we don’t use the two major global platforms for advertising.


Where do streaming services apply? For example, if I saw a Purism ad on Netflix.

For me, the issue would be further enabling and perpetuating Google’s and Facebook’s business model, which they ultimately use to abuse our privacy.

On the other hand, if I can give a dollar to Faceborg, and it causes them to lose ten dollars from other people, it’s a nine dollar net loss to those jerks.


I approve of Purism’s desire to use ethical Advertising. But I think that the biggest part of this equation is not understood by most Marketing companies nor by companies that do marketing. In today’s business and technology environment, there is one thing more important than anything that was spoken of in the article, although Kyle touches on the issue when using the word “ethical”, and by stating Purism’s ethical limits with respect to marketing.

I will use myself as an example of a customer, because I may be a little better than some people at how to set my boundries. With the exception of Kyle’s stated ideals, the whole marketing business these days is absolutely corrupted to the point of being damaging to society. As a result, we all as customers have to set firm boundries and expect those boundries to be respected, no exceptions. So the answer starts with you and I as customers.

After my sister has a good experience with the company that installed solar panels on her roof, I call the same sales person and his company to install solar panels on to my roof too. Their price was within a reasonable market value. I spent tens of thousands of dollars and didn’t try very hard to get a lower price. I get calls almost every day from people trying to sell me a solar power system. I never allowed any of them to come close to even gaining my interest. One guy seemed particularly nice. So I asked for his home phone number, the one that his wife or child might answer if I called. I wasn’t trying to be creepy or mean. I was politely trying to explain to him why I would never buy anything from him or anyone like him, ever. He hung-up on me, thus proving my point.

Every sale is about relationships. If I do my research or get a referral from someone I trust, the potential transaction starts out on much safer ground. In any event, it’s almost always me who makes a first contact to the seller. I have an extremely high resistance toward any seller who spies on me or who contacts me first, or who gets my contact information from some list. If the first contact is in any way anonymous, deceptive, harassing, or includes attempts to manipulate me or to violate my boundries, I always block the person and any potential to buy anything completely from my mind. So the only way for them to get in, is by their respecting my boundries. That eliminates 99% of those who would want to sell to me. I do need to make purchases from someone some of the time. And within that remaining 1%, there are more than enough really nice and ethical people to do business with. But concerning that 99% that are unvetted, they might need me. But I don’t need any of them. With that in-mind, I seek out people to make purchases from, but only from people who meet my clearly-defined criteria.

The blanket promoting of a company brand and what it stands for, is honorable. Over time, people come to respect a well managed company and its respective brand.

So what can Purism do to better market themselves? I hope that my answer here is not understood to be spiteful or vengeful because I admittedly have been waiting for a long time to get my Librem 5. That is not my motive here. Kyle has asked for input and I feel a need to provide my sincerest answer. Everything that Kyle says he is currently doing are the right things to do. But the lions share in Purism’s potential marketing efforts are being wasted right now. Telling the truth, keeping commitments, and showing transparency in the face of being forced to let your customer down, can all have magical properties. I am familiar with Purism’s products and come to this forum several times per week. But instead of telling people who trust me about Purism’s products, I would warn them about my perception, that Purism does not often tell the truth. Purism doesn’t seem to be capable of planning for any kind of production ramping (despite the pandemic). I wouldn’t advise others to take the risks that I have taken here, which might still result in the loss of my money. If a good product that I wanted would have been shipped to me by Purism already, I may have purchased more Purism products and may have already highly recommended them to friends who trust me already. By now, those people and their friends and friends of friends, could very well by now have purchased millions of dollars in products from Purism, and that would have been just through me alone (not to mention Purism’s other customers). You can’t either buy nor could Purism afford (if it were for sale) that kind of advertising anywhere. If I were Purism right now, I would promote the brand heavily, while working as hard as possible for the brand to be worth something before too many people start talking about it.


In my opinion, traditional offline physical advertising boards (billboards, is that the word for it?) around town or along roads and so on, is the way to go. Big advantage:-it’s not creepy at all: it’s completely honest. People walk by and they can look at it or not, they can look at it without fear of being tracked.

As an example, Mullvad VPN paid for such ads in the subway in Stockholm where I live, it looks like this:

I think it’s a good choice for Mullvad and would be good for Purism as well for the same reason: you want to reach people who are uncomfortable with being tracked. Those people tend to hate any kind of online advertising because it always feels like someone is trying to track you. If they do see online ads there is a risk that it backfires, they will see you as yet another one of all those companies that are trying to track people with online advertising.

As for how to know if ads had any effect: stick with correlating time and place: if you run an ad campaign at a certain time in a certain state or country, and you see a spike in sales with orders to that state or country, you have an indication that it worked. Of course you can also look for increases in website traffic around the time when ads were put up.

(As another example apart from Mullvad, DuckDuckGo also used physical ads in Stockholm a while back.)