September 19, 2015

You'll Probably Hate this Posting about Ad Blockers and Ad Blocking

This is a discussion that I really wish didn't need to take place at all.

But we're here, and while understanding how we got to this point is obviously crucially important, mapping the way forward is even more of a priority.

By now you may know that I've taken a rather hard -- and in some quarters quite unpopular -- stance against ad blockers and ad blocking.

Luckily, I'm not running a popularity contest. So I want to briefly explain some aspects of my reasoning on this.

I'm not claiming any brilliant philosophical insights, but I do perhaps bring two aspects to the table of some value. One is historical perspective, thanks to having been hanging around the Net pretty much since its beginning.

The second aspect is the continual flood of unsolicited email (and sometimes phone!) queries that I receive about Google, broader Internet issues, and other tech-related topics. This provides me with an enormous amount of data concerning Internet users' thinking and worries. It's all self-selected of course -- so cannot be used for statistically valid extrapolations -- but it does cover the gamut in useful ways.

The ad blocking crisis -- and I do believe we are now on the cusp of a true crisis in this regard -- has been long coming.

There's no denying that in many ways Web ads have flown out of control. People used to complain about relatively lightweight static banner ads. But the rise of large, pre-loaded (and perhaps the worst sin of all, autoplaying with audio) full-motion video ads was the straw that broke the camel's back for many users. Browser developers have moved rapidly to provide their own mechanisms to prevent those from suddenly blaring out of your speakers unexpectedly, but there's no denying the existence of an "arms race" in ads, particularly from less savory sources.

But we get into trouble rapidly if we try treat all ads and all ad networks as being inherently evil, and the collateral damage to the forces of "goodness and niceness" (as Maxwell Smart used to say) can be devastating.

Because all ad networks and all ads are definitely NOT created equal.

And despite the statements of many ad blocking proponents who claim to only be concerned about "bad" and "misbehaving" ads, or slower page load speeds, or ad-enabled malware, my view is that in most cases these claims -- and the circumstances that flow from them -- are both cavalier and hypocritical.

Email I've been receiving on this topic over the last few days has broken down mainly into two categories.

First, there are the small websites, often one-person sites, or husband and wife, who operate on essentially a "hobby" basis and are terrified of losing even the relatively small amount they receive from ads that help them keep their heads above water and the websites on the air.

Ad blocking proponents by and large are taking a remarkably evil attitude toward such sites, saying things like "if you can't find other ways to make money go out of business" -- or much stronger language.

Outside of the fact that many of these sites aren't even businesses in the first place, just informational and/or fun hobby sites, the reality is that replacement income models for the existing ad regimes do not exist for most of these websites in a practical sense.

Rupert Murdoch and other giant media conglomerates will find ways to adjust and survive, but for the little guys the situation is much more bleak.

Paywalled subscription models are utterly impractical for most of them -- the uptake would be minuscule. Micropayment systems have been a parade of failures, and none exist today with sufficient reach to be of any value at all in these circumstances, even assuming enough people would bother signing up to pay through them in the first place -- a highly doubtful proposition.

This "let the little sites die" attitude on the part of so many ad blocker fans seems most odd given that many of these same people and groups have long at least paid lip service to the concept of diversity on the Web. They've complained that the "big guys" have all the advantages -- even as blocking advocates push a tech that would inevitably funnel an even larger percentage of Net revenues to the media giants as small sites are starved out of existence.

Nor do these proponents seem to care about Internet users who do not have the disposable income to pay actual cash to access sites that they formerly got for free via ads.

Remarkably, at the same time they complain about "walled gardens" or "in-app purchase abuse" -- blocking proponents advocate a blocking regime that will potentially wreck the key aspect of the Net -- open websites themselves -- that have been the one most dependable aspect of open information on the Net since the dawn of the first websites.

And claims that some new revenue mechanism will come along to save small sites sound to my ears like suggesting you'll come up with a cure for the patient after they're dead -- so "nothing to worry about, right?" -- wrong!

Apple's new iOS 9 ad blocking push threatens to be the inflection point that transforms ad blocking from a relatively niche application class to much more of a default situation.

And let's be clear about this. While Apple's actions have been widely characterized as an assault against Google, they can also be viewed as even more of an assault on the entire Internet and the ability to access information openly without sites having to pay Apple for the privilege of reaching users.

Already, "Wired" has published an article that explicitly can only be viewed today if you have an iPhone running iOS 9!

Which brings us to the second category of relevant email I've been receiving lately -- messages from the ad blocking proponents themselves -- many of whom insist that they are technically competent and only would block "bad" ads -- not ads that they personally found to be acceptable and pure of heart.

I don't believe most of them, because in so many cases there's an implicit (or even explicit!) subtext that they feel somehow "privileged" and above the fray, deserving of getting everything they want for free. And yes, many of these ad block proponents are launching into "information wants to be free" tirades that cover reading websites while blocking ads, stealing music and movies, and all the rest.

These ad blocking groupies also tend to make propagandist, false statements about the tracking and ad targeting models associated with ad networks, failing to note that the reputable networks maintain user anonymity in their systems, don't sell user data to third parties, and are vastly more protective of user data than your friendly bank or credit card company who often happily sell fully-identified -- not anonymous! -- data to third parties in enormous quantities.

But let's leave these "technically competent" ad blocker fans aside for the moment.

Because as ad blocking rapidly goes mainstream and even installed by default, the majority of users are never going to change the ad blocker settings to let "good" ads through.

What's more, you can be sure that the most popular ad blockers will be the ones that attempt to block ALL ads, just as a cable TV channel with commercials would quickly be abandoned for a channel with the same programming without commercials.

Already we've seen the author of a blocking app that had over several days become the most popular application in the Apple App Store actually and admirably withdraw it, expressing what we could call "developer's remorse" over the collateral damage his app could do. But plenty of blocking apps written by far less ethical authors were ready and waiting to take up the slack.

For sites without other income possibilities, there are a number of ways they can try fight back, all of them unfortunate.

They can try block users who are using ad blockers. Some sites are already doing this (including some major sites on some materials). They could dramatically slow down page speeds to users with blockers.

They could start running sleazy paid "native advertising" -- fake articles that are actually paid placements and would be unblockable by conventional ad blockers, causing users to effectively trade ads that they knew were ads for ads that they probably won't realize are ads at all.

My guess though is that associated pleas to users to turn off ad blockers will meet with deaf ears. Most people won't bother, but will still express endless indignation as their personally favorite small sites gradually wink out of existence, along with most of the Web's diversity.

I don't have a magic wand solution to any of this, but I will openly admit that the pervasive hypocrisy I hear from some of the most vocal proponents of ad blocking strike me as deeply selfish and ugly.

Yesterday I created a new Google+ community to discuss these issues, and hopefully to perhaps perceive the start of a path toward workable and practical solutions. It's at:

and you're most welcome to join the discussion there.

In the meantime, please keep in mind that the ads you block may very well be paying one way or another for the content that you and many other people most care about.

Remember, we still don't know how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so.
All opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at September 19, 2015 11:05 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein