The Ad-Blocker’s Dilemma

When a big part of your job has you visiting both spam blogs and pirate Web sites, ad blocking software is not option, it is a requirement. Not only do I not wish to give money to those sites, but the ads are often so intrusive as to interfere with whatever I am doing. As such, ad blocking software, quite literally, makes it possible for me to do my job on many projects.

But what about ad blocking on legitimate sites?

Ars Technica recently raised the issue by conducting a brief experiment on the matter. The site altered their code so that anyone running ad blocking software would also strip out the site’s content, essentially making it useless. Anyone who either A) Whitelisted the domain or B) Paid for a subscription would be immune to this effect.

However, this caused a great deal of controversy among Ars Technica’s readers when it was discovered. Many leaped to the site’s defense, others whitelisted the domain, but still a sizable mob vented anger and frustration at the change, many vowing never to return.

Ars Technica eventually backed away, undoing the changes. This came after AdBlockPlus updated itself to defeat the protection but Ars Technica staffers said they could easily rotate the code to defeat the reversal, essentially playing “cat and mouse” for all eternity.

But Ars’ goal wasn’t to shut the ad blockers away permanently but rather, to start a dialog on the issue and to educate users. A dialog I am hoping to continue here.

Ad Blocking as a Form of Piracy

With rampant piracy and a swell of free, legal content hurting nearly all content industries, many view ad-based distribution as one of the few possible business models that can still work. Furthermore, it is one employed by countless Web sites, including Ars Technica.

However, ad blocking essentially short circuits that model. Since the ads are never loaded, the site pays for the content, bandwidth and server costs to deliver the material to the reader but never has a chance to recoup the costs. In short, every person who blocks ads on a site is a mathematical loss for the site, albeit a small one.

Since many Web sites, especially larger ones, are paid on a per impression basis, simply saying “I wouldn’t click on them anyway” is no consolation. Refusing to look at the ads or be subject to the impression deprives the site of revenue.

Patrick O’Keefe, both my co-host of the Copyright 2.0 Show and the operator of many advertising-supported forums, agrees with this, “I say this as both a publisher and an active website user and reader: If you love a site, you should view their ads or, if they offer it, subscribe to their ad-free version. You should not block their ads because, if you do, you are contributing to the end of that site.”

As a result, many, though not necessarily O’Keefe, view this as a strange form of piracy. A situation where the viewer is trying to obtain content for “free”, without taking on their share of the burden. The only difference is where traditional piracy involves obtaining a normally paid creation for free, ad blocking takes a work that was available at the “cost” of viewing ads but removes that expense.

As with any other type of piracy, this shifts the cost of the work to the paying customers, in this case those who view the page normally, and forces creators to squeeze more revenue from them in order to stay alive.

With that in mind, there is little doubt that ad blockers do hurt legitimate sites, but the question is how much and, more importantly, why do people use them in the first place.

Why Block Ads?

Given that everyone seems to want to support the site they love, the question becomes why do so many people go out of their way to block ads?

On that front, there are many reasons given, below are just a few:

  1. Annoyance: Many ads on today’s Web are animated and even contain sound. Not only are these distracting but may be inappropriate to view in certain environments, such as computer labs. They may also interfere with other programs, such as music players.
  2. Bandwidth Issues: Many consumers are paying for the bandwidth they use and ads, especially animated or large image advertisements, can cost them money, essentially showing them advertisements that they have to pay for.
  3. Privacy: As ad networks have consolidated and have spread across more and more sites, they are able to track user’s surfing activities all over the Web and many intentionally do so to serve better targeted ads. Mix that in with the dubious privacy history of some ad networks and many feel uneasy about loading ads.

The problem is pretty simple. As advertisers have become more and more aggressive about selling their ad space, out of necessity, they have used tactics that have made visitors less and less happy, so much so that many have installed ad blocking software, including 40% of Ars Technica’s audience according to their research.

But is ad blocking a copyright issue? It’s an unfortunately dubious area of the law.

Ad Blocking as Copyright Infringement

One area of contention with ad blocking software is whether it is illegal or not. There are several legal theories that may offer an avenue of attack for those who wish to seek recouse against the creators of such tools and, possibly, their users.

The biggest is that ad blocking software infringes the copyright of the sites they filter by creating an unlawful derivative work of the site. It is an interesting theory, by which the Web page, as it is intended to be displayed, is a work that is unlawfully altered by the application.

The problem is that it would, at least theoretically, also affect a slew of other Web page moderation tools, including those that add search links or notations for bookmarks. Anything that displayed a Web site in its non-intended form, could be bit.

Another theory is that, depending on the site’s terms of service, that the use of such applications could be a violation of that contract. This one would be targeted more to the users of ad blocking software rather than the makers. However, this would be a dubious path to go down in the courts as the PR backlash would inevitably do more damage than ad blocking.

Instead, it would more likely be used as a tool to flag user accounts and even ban repeat users. While still dangerous from a PR standpoint, it’s better than filing suit.

However, none of these theories have been tested and, to date, marketers have been trying a more conciliatory routes. The Ars Technica “experiment” marking the first time in recent history a major, well-respected site went against ad blockers head on, even calling them freeloaders.

But that begs the question: Are ad blockers freeloaders? If so, is it worthwhile for sites like Ars Technica to turn them away?

Are Ad Blockers Freeloaders?

On the surface the math seems pretty simple. A user with ad block generates zero revenue and consumes bandwidth, server resources, etc. As such, they operate at a net loss.

The reality, however, is not that straightforward. Ad blockers often contribute to the site in other ways, including posting comments, submitting links to social news sites, sharing URLs with friends and helping build a community that others, including those who don’t block ads, will want to visit and partake in.

The challenge for Web sites is determining if these visitors are valuable enough to welcome. Would a site make more money blocking those with ad blockers and swapping the decreased traffic for some users whitelisting the site? Or do those who block ads add enough value to increase the site’s revenue without seeing ads? There’s no sure-fire way to tell.

The better solution, it would seem, is to find a way to reach the ad blockers without turning them away. In short, find a way to increase the number who view ads while not completely blocking the ad blocking crowd.

Seeking a Better Solution

The path Ars Technica chose seems likely to be the best. Though it initially blocked ad blockers, it instead chose to educate those users about the harm they were doing and ask them to either disable their plugins or whitelist their domain.

There are even WordPress plugins that can help achieve this goal, replacing ads with pleas to disable ad blockers for those who use them.

This is something that O’Keefe agrees with saying that, “Ad blockers are scary. I think that some people don’t realize the damage they can do. In which case, it’s good to try to reach those people and educate them. Displaying a message to people who run ad blockers, asking them to turn them off, and explaining why, sounds like a good way to do that.”

Though these methods won’t convince everyone, or even a majority, to turn off their ad blockers, they will convince some and do so without turning away those who won’t or can’t.

Bottom Line

There are no easy answer to the ad blocking puzzle. The ethics and legality of ad blocking are going to be debated for a long time to come. Where traditional piracy fits more neatly into existing copyright law and social norms are becoming somewhat more settled, ad blocking is still relatively new and untested both in courts and in society at large.

However, as the Ars Technica ordeal illustrates, it is starting to get to a level that impacts Web sites enough to take action. It will be interesting to see if, in five years or so, if we look back on Ars Technica’s play as something of a “Napster moment” in the war against ad blocking.

What is clear is that this issue is growing in importance and it is only going to get more divisive and more heated in the future. What we saw this weekend was, almost certainly, just a mere taste of what’s to come

This issue is about to blow up and in a very big way.

34 Responses to The Ad-Blocker’s Dilemma

  1. LauraH says:

    My way around some of this is the Flashblock extension for Firefox. It blocks most of the really annoying problematic ads in my experience. It also gives me the option of deciding to actively view ads and other flash content.

  2. cybele says:

    Like LauraH, I use the flashblock. There is very little reason to have anything, desired or not, load automatically. I also use Adblock but don't load the prepopulated blacklists. I create my own. Anything animated gets added to it, usually on a directory level – not the whole ad provider. I have the right to concentrate on the actual content and am happy to visit the site and get the full experience, but the minute something flashes or rotates to distract me from what I'm doing is the minute I block it. (I do this with actual site content too, I can't stand those constantly rotating carousels – I'm reading this thing why do they want me to click before I've finished?)I don't have much advertising on my own site, but I have always refused to run animated ads and would never expose my readers to pop ups or click throughs. I also make sure that the advertisers I'm accepting fit my site. I don't take ads for dubious weight loss programs or supplements.

  3. Though I agree with you that Flashblock is better for advertisers than Adblock, from the legal perspective, things don't change all that much as they could still put it in their TOS to bar you from doing so or even challenge the application makers claiming that they are creating an unauthorized derivative works.Of course, HTML5 is going to render this whole issue moot before too much longer, most likely at least. Almost anything you can do in flash you can do with HTML5 without problem.

  4. SilverTiger says:

    I don't have an ad-blocker installed at present but if ever I found advertisements annoying me I would have no compunction about installing and using one. If a site offers itself to view, it has to accept people viewing it as they wish. If it is going to make rules about how they view it, then fine, let it make itself a subscription site that you can only see by first signing an agreement.No site has the moral right to determine what viewing software we install when surfing the Web.

  5. The trick moving forward is going to be finding a way to balance the right of the consumer to control their computer and their Web experience with the right of the Webmaster to have their Web page sent through unaltered. Finding this balance is going to be very difficult but I think we may see a system such as yours where users filter out specific elements that annoy them. On that front, this issue sounds a lot like copyright itself…

  6. Matt says:

    I haven't looked into this extensively, but I think I'm right in saying that the AdBlock extension in Google Chrome 4 doesn't prevent the ads from being served. It merely uses CSS to hide them. So the sites still get their user impressions and the users get an ad free experience. Seems to be the best of both worlds.Of course, since the ads are still loading, the page can still be slow to load. Slow loading pages are one of the main reasons I use ad blockers.

  7. I don't really have much to add to this but wanted to ask what you thought might be a better business model than advertising? Do you have any thoughts on an alternative?

  8. The problem there actually may be much worse. Since you are loading the ads but not viewing them, one is A) Using more bandwidth from the originating site or their ad networks and B) You are throwing off the CTR statistics for advertisers (making them seem lower than they are).In short, while the site may get money for the views of the ads, advertisers and ad networks will be very unhappy about it and may decide to drop these sites altogether. If their CTR isn't what it should be, sites get booted from networks and sponsors. That hurts MUCH worse than just losing some impressions.Speaking as someone holding an advertising degree, I would find this to be much worse from the advertisers perspective than regular ad blocking, just because it screws up the stats.

  9. Matt says:

    I was pretty sure my argument was flimsy, thanks for clearing that up. I think I'll probably suck it up and disable my ad blockers — your article, and the Ars Technica article have been very enlightening about an issue I'd never really given much thought to.

  10. Martin says:

    If I open my physical copy of the Sunday newspaper and throw away any or all of the advertising sections without reading them, am I violating the law, because I am infringing the copyright of the publication as I physically 'filter out the advertising sections' by creating 'an unlawful derivative work of the publication'???And when I filter out "junk mail" that arrives in my physical mailbox without opening it or reading it, am I violating copyright law?And when I filter out "spam" and "junk email" from my incoming email account, am I also violating copyright law?And when I block or limit access to entire web sites (by my router configuration), I that find inappropriate, distracting, or harmful to an underage child (wikipedia, Youtube, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, and porn) am I violating the law?

  11. Mr. Poet says:

    I have ad blocking on my computer, but to be honest, I don't remember which software blocks what. IE's pop-up blocker is activated. I use Spybot to "immunize" IE, which adds domains to "restricted" sites (which other browsers do not have). AVG may block some as well. It doesn't block Google AdSense or some banner ads. And I've only permanently "blocked" all ads from one site: Drudgereport. Before I had a pop-up blocker, I had Drudgereport open in my browser. I left the room for a little while. When I came back, my task bar was stuffed with pop-up ads. There were so many, I may have had to ALT-F-DEL my way out of my browser. I think some pop-up ads were calling other pop-up ads, apart from Drudgereport. I put Drudgereport in my "restricted" sites list and continue to view the site to this day. I don't need to get spyware or a virus (which AVG once blocked from a banner ad I saw on a site I visit frequently) because the site's owner needs to make a living.

  12. ryan says:

    A user should be able to browser the internet however they like: with or without ads. Images or no images. If I'm on my mobile, there is no need for me to see ads. I'm on there for information and things need to be responsive.For example, when I'm using Facebook, I don't want to see ads. I made a simple firefox plugin to remove the div that contains the ads. I'm socializing with family, I don't need to see a commercial while doing so. You like receiving sales calls when your about to sit down and eat with your family? Ads on Facebook give me the same feeling.The internet isn't a television where advertisers have full control. If you rely on ads to pay for your web hosting fees… you need to find another way to generate income. There are several different ways to block content on spam/pirate sites: just don't use the common plugin. You can easily write your own so it will load the page and block content coming from outside the site. Besides that, if your job requires you to look at sites like that, you should be doing that on a machine where it won't matter if it's compromised.

  13. cybele says:

    ryan said: "The internet isn't a television where advertisers have full control. If you rely on ads to pay for your web hosting fees… you need to find another way to generate income. "I'm sorry, how are content creators supposed to make money? If people didn't actually create stuff, the internet would be pretty boring. There is some expectation of monetization with quality content, isn't there?

  14. Matt says:

    It costs millions each year for you to have the privilege of conversing with your family for free on Facebook. Somebody has to pay for it, and since the users won't pay for Facebook if they charged a subscription (it's been free for too long), how else are they going to pay for it?

  15. Mr. Poet says:

    Out of curiosity, I removed Drudgereport from "restricted" sites and "whitelisted" it for pop-up ads to see what would happen. No pop-up ads, and the banner ads are a far cry from what I used to see. So bravo, Matt Drudge! And the headline archive was a nice addition. IE was blocking it under "restricted" sites.Some ads were still blocked, though. Which software package is blocking it, I do not know. Let that be a warning to you guys. I don't even know what's blocking ads anymore. What if it's blocking things I want to see, too?

  16. eko mcginnes says:

    Companies need to be more creative. Slapping ads on every page or forcing someone to look at an ad isn't the answer. No one will click on all the junk but yourself (and probably from a different location so you don't get shut down from clicking on your own ads)The "privilege" to use facebook? I can make my own social app from zero to low cost up-keep. I've written my own html browser that simply reads text and images that are < 100kb. I make sure I don't have to deal with ads, especially when most of these sites can't display any relevant ads. I have a phd. Why should I see an ad for a community college. I have a tv for that.The point is, I don't want to see your ads. I'm not paying extra to not see them either. What I will do is write my own plugins to see the web I how I want see it. Not how direct marketers want me to see it.There will always be someone out there who changes the radio station when a commercial comes on, or throws in a dvd or changes the channel on a tv. No site will ever be able to force their users into watching ads. There will always be someone in the background making ad blockers and special remotes to skip/block/hide advertisements.eko

  17. Matt says:

    Someone, somewhere has to pay for it at some point in the chain. Without funding, Facebook can't operate. It's basically either ads or subscriptions, there aren't many other options currently… which seems to be what you're lamenting.With all that stuff you've built and your phd, you sound like a pretty creative guy. Why not help these companies come up with some creative ways of making money? It sure sounds like they could do with your help.

  18. There is a tremendous difference between real world physical goods and online ones. If you, for example, cut out the ads in a magazine, not only would you be spending more time looking at said ads by taking the time to cut them out, but you are damaging or destroying your own legitimately obtained copy. The same goes for discarding junk mail or filtering out spam (in that case a copy of the message is sent to you).When you visit a Web site, you are pulling a copy down. Not only that, you are making a new one that exists on your computer. There is an implied license to do that, but the law changes here as you've gone from altering a copy that was given to you to making a new copy and making changes to it. That is where the derivative works issue comes into play.To be clear, I'm not making a case for or against ad blockers, my stance is neutral, but I do wish to analyze the legal issues of it and offer counterpoints.There are just many flaws in comparing how we treat real-world goods versus how we treat copies created digitally. The physical world paradigms don't always fit neatly into the virtual world, something that works for and against copyright holders at times.

  19. In order to keep sites like Facebook afloat, at some point, users are going to have to bear a cost. It could be direct, such as a subscription, or indirect, such as viewing ads or being marketed to otherwise. Without this, these sites can not pay the bills and they close. Some of the solution is going to be different business models, some of it being users actively seeking to support the sites they use and some of the solution will, sadly, be legal. Still, the main point is you need to be thinking about the cost you ARE willing to pay to use Facebook and sites like it. Once you know that, we can begin working from there.Regarding my own comp, I don't run adblockers to protect my computer. I use secure browsers, updated virus protection and safe surfing habits while I do this work. The ad blocking has more to do with not giving money to pirate sites and streamlining the process of what I need. I'm not saying I'm invulnerable, but I've never gotten a virus or even a spyware app in the course of my duties. I'm careful, run different operating systems and keep my head on me at all times. That's been enough so far though though I have good contingency plans if I am compromised.

  20. catter says:

    Facebook is not so bad. I use it myself to advertise. ads are generally small and not animated. I can easily ignore them when using it myself. Now someplace like myspace ruined the usability of their site by accepting many larger animated flashing ads.

  21. To be completely fair to Facebook, if all it took to create a site of that caliber was to build a social networking platform, I think its safe to say they would have been obliterated a long time ago. Running a site like Facebook takes a lot more than that, there's promotion, member management, legal issues, server maintenance, site maintenance and more. Facebook employs hundreds of people full time and that costs quite a bit of money.While I am sure you could easily create a social network for you and your family/friends to participate, much of sites like Facebook is connecting with new people and that's an experience that requires a larger, more open network, a big part of the reason why they left the "EDU" phase.In short, to create the services that everyone enjoys, money has to come in at some point.

  22. Maria says:

    Although I seem to have developed the ability to mentally block out ads, there are some cases when I just can't seem to do it. Those cases have the following in common:- So many ads that ad space occupies more page space than actual content.- Disgusting or annoying ads (think fat women in bikinis, yellow teeth, blinking lists of states).- Ads that appear when you simply move your mouse near/over them.- Ads that make noise.If I can't block ads I don't want to see on a site, I simply stop visiting that site.Also, I've found the Readability (http://lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability/) utility extremely helpful for reading good content on ad-laden sites. It basically takes the content only and displays it on a page that's easy to read.I should also mention here that I actually go out of my way to click Google ads on sites I like and want to support. It's my way of paying for content. But in all cases, these sites aren't so full of ads that you can't find the content. Ad space should NEVER take up more space than real content on any site.

  23. Eric Harbeson says:

    Great that you're bringing this up. I just have a couple of small points:For a number of reasons, I doubt that ad-blocking could be considered the creation of an infringing derivative work. In large part, this is because under normal circumstances the copyright on the work in question (say, an AT article) extends only to the content of the work itself. If I run a website that serves ads, I own the rights to my blog post, but the advertising agency retains the copyright on their ads. If the website's ads are blocked, whose copyright is being infringed? Not the advertiser's, and they wouldn't care anyway because they only pay when their ad is seen. Unless you can convince a court that the specific ad is part of the fixation of your work (which might be especially hard if the advertisements are controlled on a different server and/or are served on a rotating basis), I think you'll have an uphill battle.I doubt, too, that TOS clauses prohibiting ad-blocking would be enforceable. The opinion in ProCD v. Zeidenberg (86 F.3d 1447 (7th Cir., 1996)) suggests, to me at least, that this option would not be available unless, at the very least, the user was required to agree to the terms prior to opening the desired page.I understand the concerns of website managers, but I think the solutions to the problem will need to be found outside the courts and congress. My 2¢ anyway…

  24. davidellis101 says:

    The issue is not whether to block or not to block it is more fundamental.There is an implicit assumption that advertising in its current format will continue as it has always done. In other words an industrial-age concept of billboards can be successfully grafted onto the information superhighway.This is working at the moment only because an information age alternative has not yet emerged where vendors can meet with consumers in a more efficient, less intrusive and more cost-effective environment.Information age advertising mediums are inevitable and are starting to appear right now. One example is the Customer Satisfaction Monitor which has recently been launched. This Customer Satisfaction Monitor (http://www.customersatisfactionmonitor.com) answers the three most important pre-purchase questions and introduces a new step into the sales process. Advertisers can now target prospects at a very crucial point in the sales process much more cost-effectively and less intrusively because the consumer is in control.As an advertiser it will be increasingly uneconomical to advertise elsewhere because potential customers will be ambushed at services like the Customer Satisfaction Monitor. Industrial-age advertising will, as a result, wither on the vine.For those services relying on advertising it is time to rethink your revenue model.

  25. Evan says:

    Yeah, but what's the harm in breaking a sites TOS? Especially if its one you never accepted? Usually from what I've seen the penalty is "you can't use our site anymore".If you, the site owner, crack down on me or try to enforce that TOS (unless your site is google.com) I'm probably going to be mad enough with you that I won't use your site voluntarily anyways.

  26. Evan says:

    Nah, when you visit a website, your computer says "hey can I have a copy of this page?" The website says "yes" and sends you a copy.Completely analogous to me asking a newspaper vendor for a newspaper and him giving me one (only the costs are different).

  27. [...] The Ad-Blocker’s Dilemma (plagiarismtoday.com) [...]

  28. armac says:

    I really think that a blogger writing in English should learn to write English.

  29. Karl says:

    Well, if you don't wanna see my page with ads included, then I don't wanna show you my page at all.
    Seems strait, simple and fair enough!

  30. [...] The Ad-Blocker’s Dilemma – Some interesting thoughts on blocking ads on Web sites. On PlagiarismToday.com. [...]

  31. vc says:

    I see nothing wrong with blocking ads, and i will always block them.

  32. [...] problem with ad blockers is something that is both pretty obvious and something we’ve discussed before. Ad blockers basically prevent advertisements from loading, depriving the sites they run on of any [...]

  33. Ads suck says:

    Forget it. I will not disable my ad-block software, there’s no way I will admit them. Don’t give a damn if you make a living out of it.

    And as a Computer Tech, I will keep on installing AdBlock Plus on my costumers’ PC as long as I can, just like I did today. And yes, I will recommend it to everyone out there. Period. Don’t like it? Well, that’s your problem, not mine. Maybe you shouldn’t be shoving ads down people’s throats, you money whores!

  34. […] issues for webmasters and content creators for years. Back in 2010, for example, the site Ars Technica conducted an experiment and blocked the site’s content to those running ad blocking […]

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