The following is a particularly nasty idea that Microsoft has applied a patent for: instead of using the usual image-based captchas to distinguish between humans and robots (which are already bad enough since they put the blind users of Braille terminals at a disadvantage), Microsoft proposes that one must look at ad banners, and name the products they show in order to answer an ad-captcha.

This would not only force users to focus their attention on those annoying ads, it will also have a lot of other user-unfriendly consequences:

  • Users will have to turn off ad-blockers like AdBlock+ to see the ads. This will allow ad-serving companies to track the user’s surfing habits. (Remember to turn on ABP again later!)
  • Where ads are served via JavaScript, users will have to turn off JavaScript blockers like NoScript on those particular sites, opening up their systems to all kinds of vulnerabilities as well, including phishing attacks etc.
  • Where ads are served as Flash programs, users will have to install Flash on their computers. Not only is allowing remote code like Flash to be executed locally an extremely bad idea, it would also exclude users of non-mainstream operating systems that Adobe’s Flash developers don’t want to support.
  • Microsoft would probably like the idea of ads being served in their own proprietary Silverlight format. That would force users to use Windows to view the ads, and be able to answer ad-captchas.

What Microsoft didn’t propose, but has been already hinted at elsewhere: in a next step, users will have to interact with the ad-servers directly to get an answer code for the captchas. This would allow advertisers to gather more accurate statistics about people actually interacting with their ads in a conscious way. And to take the Orwellian scenario even one step further: the ad servers could decide to send the ad-captcha’s response to an e-mail address the user will have to provide. Isn’t that an ideal way to gather e-mail addresses for purely spam-purposes? After all, that’s an opt-in to spam, right? Oh, and the last step would be for advertisers to send the ad-captcha’s answer only to those who actually bought their product at least once. Great, just lovely!

Whatever happens to this nasty idea, I hope webmasters, forum and wiki admins etc. will use enough common sense not to make use of it. Otherwise, this would piss off enough visitors to make their site useless, or at least, a lot less attractive. And despite me being totally opposed to software patents, I hope that this particular patent will be granted to Microsoft, and that Microsoft will sue every website who ever thinks that this was a good idea. Who said software patents were all bad? ;)