Some argue that AdBlock Plus has the potential to destroy publishing revenues, so what can be done for Internet users to have their adblocking cake and eat it?
Let’s start this article with no pretences – I have used AdBlock Plus. If you’re not au fait with the tools, AdBlock Plus is a free browser extension that prevents online ads from being displayed on your browser. I used ad blocking for years, but after so long I found it hard to justify just why.
I started using AdBlock it because it was the done thing at university. As my web interest matured in around 2008 and 2009, AdBlock’s free browser plug-in was sweeping the halls of my university with whispered library promises of a streamlined user experience, of fighting back at the man, of making the web just look better.
The web is a personal space. It contains your favourite websites, your bookmarks, your forum posts, the web contains our deepest, darkest secrets, so it makes sense from a psychological and emotional point of view that it would fall to web users themselves to want to dictate what they can and cannot see.
We’re all fine with adverts in magazines, in newspapers; these legacy ad spaces have always been welcomed and tolerated within print media, and have become the saviours of many print publications as readers turned to screens rather than pieces of paper, so why the popularity of blocking ads online? And if adblocking usage keeps increasing, what exactly will the online publishers do to make money?
I am writing this article in the month that saw AdBlock Plus, or rather, its parent company Eyeo, successfully defend itself in German court for the second time in as many months.
German news websites had argued, like many other websites around the world, that AdBlock Plus is anti-competitive, and threatens their capability to offer readers content for free. The argument goes like this: if a website can’t sell ad space because all of its readers are using AdBlock, then it won’t get revenue, thus other revenue streams have to be erected, such as a paywall.
But AdBlock Plus has yet again come out on top, with the German legal system ruling that ad blocking by choice of the user is indeed 100 percent legal.
In a statement in April after a case brought against AdBlock by other websites, the firm said: “This is a victory for every single Internet user because it confirms each individual’s right to block annoying ads, protect their privacy and, by extension, determine his or her own Internet experience. It is living proof of the unalienable right of every user to enjoy online self-determination.”
There are no concrete laws on adblocking. UK legal lawyer Mark Owen, partner in the trademark, copyright and media group, told TechWeekEurope that “there is no single ‘Ad Blocking Law’ in the UK”.
The news came as AdBlock released its latest assault on online ads, but this, time, in the mobile world. With the massively rapid uptake on users browsing the Internet on their mobiles, the release of AdBlock for Android smartphones could spell more doom for online publishers.
AdBlock Plus itself reckons it has around 40 million to 60 million active users, but other estimates put download figures at up to 350 million. A December 2014 survey by PageFair pointed to 28 percent of US Internet users deploying AdBlock.
For many users, the company is seen as a white knight for web freedom, but this is where the story takes a turn. AdBlockPlus has something called a white list, and this is where the free software company makes its money. The ‘white list’ consists of the types of adverts that AdBlock deems ‘non-intrusive’, and actually allow through the filters, so they appear on web pages even if the browser has the software plug-in installed.
Ben Williams, head of operations at AdBlock Plus, told me that if publishers or advertisers agree to make ads that fit the criteria, then they can be certified.
“That criteria page does have a lot of words on it, so here’s the Cliffs Notes version,” said Williams. “Acceptable ads should not intrude upon your web experience. Almost all the criteria share this common kernel, because let’s face it, no one goes to a site to view the ads. So when an ad intrudes upon my intention to consume a particular piece of content – in a manner 10 times more obtrusive than ads in magazines or papers ever dreamed of being – I want to get rid of it. So acceptable ads can’t be like that. They don’t intrude and they’re honest about being an ad.”
But isn’t this approach hysterically hypocritical? Absolutely not, Williams told me. “It’s controversial, but I don’t see how we’re hypocrites for doing it,” he said. “We don’t stand for ‘no ads’. We stand for better ads. Taking money from a select few who uphold criteria acceptable to our users – and in the process providing them a service that creates value – encourages better advertising and keeps food on our employees’ tables. And remember: our employees work for better ads, not wanton ad annihilation.”
Internet giants Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Taboola have all reportedly paid AdBlock Plus to allow their ads to pass through its filter software and get onto its white list. A source told the Financial Times that Adblock has been pilfering up to 30 percent of the ad revenues for ads that it filters through its software.
AdBlock’s stance is confusing to some. Williams told me: “Unabated adblocking would kill the free internet that we have – because the internet as we know it is dependent on ads. Acceptable Ads grew out of a desire to solve that problem with a system everyone could live with. It’s a start, and really not a bad one considering that we’re an adblocker after all! But we need voices in the conversation – from publishers, advertisers, everyone – to combat the larger issue of a broken advertising ecosystem.”
Nathan Warner, director at Mapp Media, a mobile advertising firm, told me that one answer to the problem facing online publishers lies in creating targeted ads that are both non-obtrusive to the user, and monetisable for online publishers.
“We need to offer online users another option that encourages them to not be put off by the advertising, while supporting the platforms they use by keeping their advertising revenues up,” said Warner. “This balance can be achieved by leveraging advanced technologies to deliver relevant ads to users based on their preferences and interests, by reducing the quantity of ads across their platform so as not to bombard users with multiple messages and formats, and by ensuring the user experience can be enhanced rather than disrupted.
“The challenge for retailers is to monetise mobile content without interfering with the users experience. The solution is through the provision of carefully considered advertising campaigns, which can utilise first party data to be as relevant as possible.”
Negating impact on speed and performance does fall into AdBlock’s necessary criteria for its white list, and is obviously an important argument in the use of adblocking and a design goal when advertising are implementing ads.
There are some that argue, however, that the use of AdBlock Plus doesn’t even begin to affect publishers in the way that some have shouted about. Digital anthropologist Nik Pollinger takes a societal point of view when discussing the ethics of adblocking.
“It is difficult to create online experiences that are in people’s interests when advertisers are the paymasters. All sorts of imperatives which may not be in peoples’ interests flow from having advertisers rather than people as the customers, for example to make a site sticky to the point of addiction,” said Pollinger.
“[But] Facebook only made about 20 cents per month profit from each user last year whilst many other sites where advertising is a key part of the business model lose money, even mega popular ones like Twitter which hasn’t been profitable in GAAP terms. The return from advertising on a per user basis has diminished overall not because of the actions of users, such as ad blocking, but because there are too many such websites.
Pollinger said that users shouldn’t feel guilt for adblocking, even on sites that are in your favourites list. “Remember that viewing ads is only indirectly responsible for keeping many ad-supported websites going. If an ad supported service you use fails, most likely because investors woke up, just do as fickle internet users have always done: Switch your loyalty to another site, preferably one that views you, instead of advertisers, as the customer.”
AdBlock’s Williams also discussed his firm’s ideals for the future of adblocking. Williams thinks that the near future still is one with ads in it, but for him, that necessary isn’t a negative.
“Better and more relevant advertising that even discerning users will accept can provide value for everyone in the chain,” said Williams. “But I would be irresponsible or stupid to assume that ads would always be the only monetiser. There can, should and will (likely) be alternative ways to make cash online. We’ve just got to work together to explore these new ways while keeping a user-determined internet our paramount goal.”
Does AdBlock affect you? And how do you think it will affect online publishers in the future? Have your say and comment below.