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Would it be legal to click on ads on the internet, as a form of protest or boycott, making the advertisers waste time, money, or resources for something that you are not actually interested in? What exactly would make it legal or illegal, and why? Would there be a difference if such a thing was done by a single person privately, or if it was promoted publicly?

Some examples of what I mean:

  1. John Doe hates McDonald's, for whatever ethical reason (maybe he's against junk food, meat, etc.). He therefore decides to click on every McDonald's advertisement he comes across (links, banners, YouTube ads, etc.). Note that McDonald's probably spends money every time somebody clicks on one of those ads, and that John Doe is not interested in buying anything from McDonald's.
  2. John Doe hates McDonald's. He decides to do what is described in point #1, but he will also promote such behavior, hoping that more people will do the same. The goal is to get as much people as possible to boycott McDonald's by clicking the ads.
  3. John Doe hates online advertising in general, for whatever ethical reasons (maybe he thinks that it is based on an unethical business model, it degrades the internet, etc.). He decides to begin clicking on ads at random, whenever he feels like it, even though he's not interested in the advertised product at all. He also decides to start a movement called JDCA (John Doe Clicks Ads) to promote such behavior, maybe even suggesting that programmers should write plugins to automate such behavior.

Jurisdictions I'm interested in: US and EU.

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    There is an automated 'protest' (as you describe it) plugin called "AdNauseam". It made quite a few people very angry. This doesn't answer the question, but it shows that this protest mechanism has some validity. – Thomas Oct 9 at 18:02
  • Funny how blocking youtube channels and reporting their content does not prevent users from being subjected to content they find offensive (unless it’s from an independent content creator paying a fairer share of taxes on less profit). You’d think a company that makes additional profits by learning about users in ways that ought to violate a basic standard of privacy would be able to filter out this content - they can but choose not to. If I cannot avoid this content, then what else can be done (except clicking their ads with no intent to buy their product and downvoting their content)? – user24391 Oct 9 at 20:31
  • You have this backwards. Advertising wants to engage with you, and every action you take means more engagement. The most effective protest against this is to use an adblocker, and deny them this engagement. There is no ethical issue. Adblocking is the most effective and widespreadt protest in history. The problem is they come on your network, at your expense, since you download everything, and track you everywhere you go, for their long term benefit. There's no need for justification, however, or strong emotion, or negotiation. Just filter them out, and let them wither on the vine. – chiggsy Oct 11 at 7:32
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    @chiggsy, I don't think so. Fake engagement damages companies much more than no engagement. Fake engagement is going to mess up their statistics and lead to wrong investments, given enough fake clicks. – reed Oct 11 at 10:09
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No, it's not illegal...

Ads are shown as a contract between the site that hosts it and the advertising company. The contract does not stipulate that customers need to buy something, in fact, the contract can't force the customer to buy anything! At best, the contract can pay the hosting site based on the ad being shown, clicked, or any sale made after it.

...but you will do exactly the opposite

Advertizement is made to put your own brand into the head of people. In fact, most ads don't have any effect on people. As I am writing this, ads for a kid TV, travels to Turkey and the primetime films for the weekend on the TV-station I have on are shown. I have no intention of consuming any of these advertised products.

Impact of a campaign is measured by two metrics: people reached, and people responding. People reached is measured in clicks. People responding is measured in changes in earnings or sales. Clicking the ad increases the reached rating. If the rating is bad, the ad campaign is just ineffective... which leads to the most paradoxical thing: Bad advertisement and good advertisement both lead to more advertisement - bad to level out the missing response, good to maximize the response. By clicking on the ad you just funnel more money to the ad industry.

When does it get illegal? [DDOS]

The only way it would become illegal is if John Doe sets up a computer - or rather a botnet - and has that network click the ads thousands of times per second. Google can handle easily 83,000 searches per second, twitter gets more than 9000 tweets that are distributed to millions of people, Tumbler and Instagram handle together about 2500 posts per second. In fact, every second, more than 100000 Gigabytes of traffic run through the net. To have an impact on one site, you need to be truly a large number of calls... and then it is called a DDOS. DDOS is illegal under the CFAA, in this case 18 UC 1030:

(a)Whoever— (5) (A)knowingly causes the transmission of a program, information, code, or command, and as a result of such conduct, intentionally causes damage without authorization, to a protected computer;

(b)Whoever conspires to commit or attempts to commit an offense under subsection (a) of this section shall be punished as provided in subsection (c) of this section.

In the UK, you'd break the Computer Misuse Act of 1990 section 3, because denying someone else service via DDOS is unauthorized, clearly unauthorized, and prevents access to any data (the website) on any computer (the server):

(1)A person is guilty of an offence if— (a)he does any unauthorised act in relation to a computer; (b)at the time when he does the act he knows that it is unauthorised; and (c)either subsection (2) or subsection (3) below applies.

(2)This subsection applies if the person intends by doing the act— (b)to prevent or hinder access to any program or data held in any computer

But can a DDOS be protest? [NO!]

Anonymous attempted to petition to make DDOS a legal form of protest in 2013. The petition got 6,048 of the 25000 signatures needed to warrant an answer by the white house - unlike people in 2016 asking for a Death Star.

At least it prompted Joshua I. James to write a research paper about the proposal in March. He too points to the CFAA and Section 5A, especially the sentence I quoted above. Among a lot of stipulations, he points out that internet protest in the shape of a DDOS would need to follow the same rules as a legal protest on the streets - which for example demands that entrance to businesses can't be blocked, and one is not allowed to harass employees and customers.

According to the general rules for legal protest as given, there are still a number of challenges. First and foremost, entrances to businesses should not be blocked. In terms of DDoS, if sustained denial of service takes place, then access (entrance) to the server (business)is effectively blocked. This means that, at a minimum, sustained denial of service should be considered as a non-legal approach to protesting.

Thus, he concludes sustained DDOS is per se can't be a legal protest, and even a non-sustained DDOS would impact people using the site in a way they will deem harassing - which means that even a non-permanent DDOS can't be a legal protest.

And then comes the final blow: DDOS, unlike a real protest on the streets, can't, by its very nature, inform people of why there is protest, even if it were a form of protest! This means that nobody knows it is meant to be a protest and not a normal DDOS, and as it can't convey what the action is about, it can't be a proper protest.

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    It's hard to find a digital equivalent of animal rights activists standing next to a fur store with a large sign protesting the fur industry (which may well end up with a court deciding whether this counts as harassment or not). I guess the closest equivalent would be to buy Google ads where searching for "fur" shows ads for animal rights, which would presumably be fully legal. – gerrit Oct 9 at 7:44
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    @JohnDvorak What would be deceptive about it? A paid link to PETA at the top of a search for "fur" is no different from a paid link to McDonalds at the top of a search for "pizza" - it's an advert, not a search result. – IMSoP Oct 9 at 8:19
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    @JohnDvorak If it said click here to buy fur and then leads to an anti-fur page, maybe. But if it says don't buy fur, here's why then I don't see how it's deceptive. – gerrit Oct 9 at 8:55
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    As I understand it, the point is that the strategy would be ineffective because it leads to more advertising. Which is indeed ineffective if you're protesting the advertising industry. But if you're protesting the companies doing the advertising (Mcdonalds in the example), I don't see how it applies. The companies will spend money without gaining benefits. Seems effective to me. – Mark Oct 9 at 9:08
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    I'm not familiar with the interpretation of 18 UC 1030 but I'd be hard-pressed to count temporary unreachability under "causes damage". To stay in the metaphor, there is a difference between blocking a door and smashing it. Is it the ruling opinion that DDOS is "damage"? – Peter - Reinstate Monica Oct 9 at 9:09
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Legalities aside... You will most likely achieve the opposite with an interesting side effect. The campaign will prove to be very effective (as per the number of clicks), but the side owner may be penalized in some cases for receiving too many clicks.

In the past I've had a colleague who used Google Ads on his website. A competitor wanted to harm his website, so he clicked 100+ times on each and every ad showing up on pages of this website, time and time again, for days on end. A few days later, his website was flagged by Google for receiving an unusually high number of clicks, and his Google account was banned later on.

So you may not be hurting the ad campaign or the company you're trying to target, rather the innocent website owner who has nothing to do with your actions, and little or nothing with the company you're targetting.

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    So you should click hundreds of times on ads on McDonald's site instead of ads for McDonald's site? – user253751 Oct 9 at 11:29
  • @user253751 just McD has not a single ad for anything not McD on its site. – Trish Oct 9 at 12:34
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    @Trish Ah. It's one of those newfangled businesses that actually produces profitable products. – user253751 Oct 9 at 13:22
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    The campaign will not be effective because none of those clicks will be a conversion (to a sale). – Ross Presser Oct 9 at 13:32
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While it most likely is not illegal (because it is solicited access), it's not likely to be effective. Advertising is one of the components of the online world that is most responsive to circumstances.

Advertisers will detect that people who are "similar to you" (by whatever metrics are known about you) are likely to access their sites and not engage commercially. They will adjust the categories of people to whom the ads are shown and you will see less of those ads and will not have as many opportunities to engage in such protests.

In order to "promote" such behavior, you have to communicate with people who are likely to find you trustworthy. Trust is built on similarity of views in something (not necessarily everything). So the people who will hear about this protest from you will be the people who already do have enough in common with you to form certain discernible categories.

This is no different from how Google knows what to suggest to you. Or why my mother thinks that some topics are of universal interest and on everyone's mind (e.g. inner workings of the British royal family) even though no site ever tries to show me information about those topics.

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    Such classification does not have perfect accuracy, both in sensitivity (i.e. ads would still be presented to people who are maliciously clicking) and selectivity (i.e. people who would genuinely click would not be provided the ads). Both failure modes cost the company money. – Acccumulation Oct 8 at 23:22
  • @Acccumulation regardless of whether it would be perfect or not, no one has suggested that it would be. If a certain category of people is likely to be hostile to a certain group of companies, they would already be less prone to believe their commercial messaging. This isn't that different from the insurance business. It doesn't attempt to be prefect. Any bulk information would act as statistical signaling. – grovkin Oct 8 at 23:29
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It depends primarily on the extent to which protesting is allowed in the jurisdiction. It is allowed and protected in the US, but may be illegal in North Korea. Let's make this about the US. A Denial of Service attack may be illegal under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but what you describe (simple clicking without an interest in what's there) doesn't damage the system (18 USC 1030(A)(5)). It's hard to imagine a company caring enough to take the matter to court, but they might sue you, seeking an injunction to prohibit you from clicking their ads. To the extent that your actions constitute expression of ideas rather than vandalism, they are constitutionally protected. However, an automated DOS attack crosses the line (your First Amendment rights are not without limits).

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    It's not without authorization (a required component of all parts of 18USC1030(a)(5)). Because access is in response to ads, it's solicited access. The solicitation is the authorization. So even if it damages the system, it's not a crime. Otherwise, anyone trying to access their online accounts during peak hours would be guilty. – grovkin Oct 8 at 22:49

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