When I finally get to be emperor of the world, I'm going to be a tyrant. Anything that bugs me will be a crime -- and, watch out, because I'm easily annoyed.
Use a cell phone near me in a restaurant and you could lose an ear. Sit behind me in a movie theater chattering away and you could end up on a chain gang. Drive way below the speed limit in the left-hand lane and you'll be hanging upside down in a dungeon somewhere.
So I suppose it's fortunate for you, and probably for me, that I'll never become emperor of the world, although, as with most people, I entertain that fantasy from time to time. There are many considerations on which we should base our laws, but one individual's annoyance threshold shouldn't be one of them. It's too personal and too subjective to sustain the weight of justifiable legal sanctions.
The same applies to ethics. As I've said so often in this space, my likes and dislikes -- and yours too -- aren't determinants in deciding what's ethical. Despite what some people would like, we need something more reasonable and more defensible, especially if we're going to get others to buy into it.
What started this line of thinking was a reader who wrote in to ask my opinion of pop-up ads on Web sites. Aren't these unethical, the reader wanted to know, just like spam, viruses, or denial of service attacks? After all, the ads do consume your time and resources, and they are annoying.
My immediate response was that they may be annoying, but that in and of itself doesn't make them unethical. There are plenty of things that annoy me and you that aren't necessarily unethical. However, as I thought about it more, I realized that I probably spend more time closing unwanted pop-up windows in the course of the day than I do deleting spam, so the subject should be worth closer examination.
I'm not talking about those windows that pop up while you're trying to perform some online function and that tell you you've done something incorrectly or left a required field blank. That's a Web design question and not necessarily an ethical one. I'm talking about advertisements that run the gamut from legitimate ads to porn and seem to continually clutter the screen while you're trying to do something else.
After considerable thought, I've tentatively decided that some of these ads are skirting the edge of being unethical, others are clearly an abuse, and still others are just a part of "doing business" on the Web. A lot of it has to do with how, when, and where the ads appear.
Let me start with the most benign form of the pop-up ads: those that appear on a site you visit to enjoy the free content provided there. This can be a news site, a humor site, or any other place that provides content without charge, which you find useful in some way.
There seems to be a certain reciprocity there. You are apparently getting something of value or you simply wouldn't visit the site. The site, on the other hand, can't survive financially by providing free content. So it brings in the money by selling ad space. Advertisers are constantly doing whatever it takes to get their message in front of their target audience.