Greetings. Despite our relatively advanced intellects and associated achievements, humans remain intensely physical animals, and that physicality affects our judgment and viewpoints across the spectrum of our thinking.
The manners in which sex has driven our actions positive and negative since the dawn of biology are fairly obvious, but there are more subtle examples as well. In particular, we seemingly tend to view physical objects as having more intrinsic value in a economic sense than intangibles.
The same person who would never dream of ripping off a CD or DVD from the local Best Buy may happily collect and trade copyrighted online music or films to which they have no legal rights under current law, using a variety of rationalizations (e.g. "information wants to be free") to justify their actions. And it seems likely that overzealous lawsuits, prosecutions, and draconian DRM systems have driven even more people into the "pirate" arena.
But what's particularly interesting is that this usually all involves intangible bits, not physical objects. So it's not too surprising that the "free information" battle has found its way to the very heart of our current primary Internet operating model -- advertiser-supported Web sites.
Today's New York Times contains an interesting article regarding browser add-ons that block Web ads, and the reactions that some site owners have had to this technology.
This particular battle has the theoretical potential to upend the entire Internet in ways that are difficult to even imagine, but it seems to me that the fundamentals of the issue aren't particularly complicated.
We've all become used to an Internet where most resources are -- for all practical purposes -- free to access, at least in terms of actual monetary outlay. But we all know that Web sites cost money to operate -- for large firms vast sums of cold, hard cash.
It was not necessarily predictable that the ad-based Internet we see today would be the way that the Web would evolve. A primarily pay-per-use, pay-per-kilobyte model could have become the standard of choice, in fact at some stages it seemed much more likely.
Frankly, I like the fact that we have an Inter-Ad-Net rather than a Users-Pay-Through-the-Nose-Net. But still, somebody has to pay to keep those spinning server disks whirring and the fibers lit.
So the question is, are we willing to "buy-in" to the concept that user blocking of Web ads is a necessarily good idea, given the limited range of practical funding alternatives?
For sure, low-key ads tend to be much less objectionable than the more in-your-face obnoxious creations that take more bandwidth to display than the rest of a Web site combined.
And it's also a given, as far as I'm concerned, that users have a perfect right to block ads at their browsers if they choose to do so. I find the claims that such blocking is "illegal" or "stealing" to be unconvincing.
However, it can also be argued that private site owners (that is non-government sites, etc.) are also within their rights to determine which browsers they wish to support and rather broadly under what conditions. If a site owner determines that their site should not be viewed without the ads -- and to the extent that the site owner can actually accurately determine viewing status -- it's difficult to justify an argument that they shouldn't be allowed to serve those browser configurations that they wish to serve, just as they can choose to block viewers with particular geographic locale IP addresses.
I'm not suggesting that blocking users who don't appear to be displaying ads in their browsers is a good idea. In fact, I think it's a royally stupid and counterproductive way to behave. But it does seem to be a valid choice in various cases, nonetheless.
Before sharpening our weapons and strapping on the armor, perhaps we should give some serious thought to the ramifications of going down the path of this particular Internet war. If we are unwilling to view Web ads, then many useful sites will undoubtedly move toward more direct ways to collect fees -- or else close down operations entirely, leaving us all the poorer. If we don't want ads, and we don't want to pay directly for accessing most sites, there's a serious dilemma afoot.
Whether it's for eradicating rats or providing Web sites, we have to pay the piper somehow. There may actually be a free lunch from time to time, but there isn't really a free Internet.