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.

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