While you're reading this blog post, Google is conducting an experiment that could revolutionize the online advertisement business… Or, at least, will force some of you to put their money where their mouth is.
We often forget about it, but today's Internet is mostly funded by advertising. Like hundreds of millions of people, your life would probably be a lot more complicated without your email account, or Facebook or Twitter account for that matter. But nobody's interested in working for free to provide you with these services, and that's where advertising plays its vital role.
Now, Google is asking: what if there was a way to directly support the people who create the sites you visit each day? Would people be willing to do it if, in return, they could enjoy an ad-free experience on their favourite websites?
This small experiment is called Contributor. It works by asking people for $1, $2 or $3 contributions to their website of choice in exchange for being able to read content without annoying advertisements. In return for this contribution, the website will not show any ads.
What I personally like about this initiative is that it's good for economics and economic education. Let me explain.
Either it's a success and it turns out to be a great innovation, a new business model that will allow publishers to monetize their content. Or, the experiment is a failure (measured by not enough people ''contributing'' to support the websites), and it will help demonstrate that A) nothing is free, not even web sites, and you have to pay for them one way or the other. And B) people in general prefer advertisements — and the annoyances and privacy issues that it involves — rather than paying to use their favourite websites.
In sum, that the public prefers a free Internet, supported by advertisement. And this, to a much larger extent that what lobby groups, claiming to speak on behalf of consumers, would want you to believe. And this wouldn't be a shocker.
As Venture Beat's Gregory Ferenstein writes, consumers have opted for advertiser-supported media for a long time. ''When the 19th-century publishers discovered that readers would rather pay less for newspapers with ads, the entire industry never looked back.''
If, on the other side, people suspicious of online advertisement and offended by targeted advertising want this ad-free model to work, all they have to do is to put their money where their mouth is!
But I suspect there won't be so many of them.
Because the online advertisement business model works, and because tech companies like Google, while often finding themselves in the crosshairs of government and activists, improve our lives in so many ways. And not only with apps and gadgets, but also by working on much larger projects, like developing a pill that aims to detect cancers and other diseases by sending magnetic nanoparticles into your bloodstream.
If targeted advertisements are what allow these innovations to bloom, and benefit us, it's a very small price to pay. Most probably, smaller than 1$, 2$ or 3$.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.