Creator of the Internet pop-up ad apologizes for 'hated tool'

In a mea culpa written for the Atlantic magazine, Ethan Zuckerman explains why he devised the infamous pop-up ad and offers his apologies to the Internet community.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read


The man who created a type of ad that Internet users love to hate is now apologizing for his creation.

Impeding and annoying all who use the Web, the dreaded pop-up ad was coded by Ethan Zuckerman, who worked on the feature in the mid-1990s when he was a programmer with a Web host called Tripod. In a column published by the Atlantic on Thursday, Zuckerman takes at least part of the blame for concocting this form of advertising and tries to explain how it happened.

The pop-up ad may be hated by most who surf the Web, but it does tie into the question of who pays for the Internet content that we use every day. Advertising is often seen as a necessary evil that we have to face -- and complain about -- to use the Web without having to pay for every site and bit of information. But the more the advertising is in-your-face, the more we complain about it, which brings us to the pop-up ad.

Describing the origins of the pop-up ad, Zuckerman said that the business model that funded Tripod and led to it being acquired by Lycos in 1998 was advertising.

"Along the way, we ended up creating one of the most hated tools in the advertiser's toolkit: the pop-up ad," Zuckerman wrote. "It was a way to associate an ad with a user's page without putting it directly on the page, which advertisers worried would imply an association between their brand and the page's content. Specifically, we came up with it when a major car company freaked out that they'd bought a banner ad on a page that celebrated anal sex. I wrote the code to launch the window and run an ad in it. I'm sorry. Our intentions were good."

In his article, Zuckerman touches on the topic of how we pay for the Web, especially at a time when advertisers seek to collect as much information about us as possible to peddle their goods to the right audience. Is this the type of Internet we want, or is there a better option? Now a director at the Center for Civic Media at MIT, Zuckerman weighs in with a strong opinion:

There is no single "right answer" to the question of how we pay for the tool that lets us share knowledge, opinions, ideas, and photos of cute cats. Whether we embrace micropayments, membership, crowdfunding, or any other model, there are bound to be unintended consequences.

But 20 years in to the ad-supported web, we can see that our current model is bad, broken, and corrosive. It's time to start paying for privacy, to support services we love, and to abandon those that are free, but sell us -- the users and our attention -- as the product.