The ethics of ad-blocking

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 16 May 2009

Shane Richmond blogged this week about newspapers and paywalls - a topic to which we all seem wedded at the moment, whether proposing them or naysaying them. Something caught my eye in the comments, which I initially filed under "unintentionally funny". Truth's Revenge said:

"'How will the Telegraph make money?' is a more pertinent question for you - display advertising? - I already have a firefox add-on that blocks it all. Once more people realise this software is out there display revenues drop significantly."

They then went on to add:

"I think advertising needs to become much more appealing for readers to click on. But apart from that I'm running out of ideas! "

My inner voice chimed in with "but you aren't looking to see if that has happened, are you!"

I have to say that I've never run ad-blocking software or plugins myself.

I can't really claim some consistent kind of moral high ground on this. I can be a bit of a freetard when it comes to software, and I long ago tired of the music industry's ham-fisted attempts to claw money from me via multi-formats that meant I had to pay over and over again for the same material just to get one or two new tracks or mixes.

However, I don't block ads on a personal principle.

To my mind, if I'm being given free content on the basis that it is being paid for by advertising, then the least I can do is make sure that the site is able to properly and accurately audit how much advertising they served.


There seems to be three cases for the adblocker.

a) The "I visit dodgy websites" user who sees tons of garish flashing adverts and concludes that all websites are the same.

b) The "I open dozens of tabs" user who sees their computer slow to a crawl until someone suggests an adblocker and suddenly everything is fine again.

c) The militant "I hate adverts" user who wont pay for content and tells the content owner to find an alternative business model.

Of the three, option (b) is the one I have sympathy with, and indeed I have an adblocker installed which I occasionally have to switch on in order to save my PC from collapse. A lot of that is due to the quantity of flash files used by advertisers and the difficulty for website owners to impose a limit on their advertisers as to how many adverts will be rich media per page load. Normally though, I work with the blocker disabled as I agree that in exchange for accessing content for free, I shall "pay" by seeing adverts.

Early versions of the adblock plug-ins required the user to block adverts on an ad-hock basis, but newer versions now come with preloaded blacklists which then block almost everything. Even the fairly innocuous Google text adverts are blocked, which just seems bizarre to me, as they are not at all objectionable. That is the really damaging product, as people can't even make a choice about whether an advert is acceptable - all are blocked.

I understand the attitude of option (a), as they have been burnt in the past, but as you note, they are then not exposed to the quality advertising that legitimate websites rely on for their income.

User option (c) is frankly, just scum. I debate with these people at times, and they tend to argue that not only should I provide content for free, but it is my fault when they refuse to pay for it. These people have no viable solution to the dilemma, they just blame the website owner for wanting to earn an income, because that is "evil".

I think the long term solution is for adblocking plug-ins to have a whitelist of approved ad agencies who will never deliver objectionable adverts - and let users opt back in to seeing these adverts. Otherwise, customers will wake up one morning to find half their favourite services have closed down, and the rest need a credit card to access them.

If a page with a video on it doesn't work properly because there are five other moving bits of Flash crud, I block the people who delivered the Flash crud.

If a site covers the viewport with a popup or survey every time I visit, I block the JS responsible.

Basically if an ad server *breaks my browser*, they're gone. And yes, blocking them makes me never see a less obnoxious advert on another site either, if they use the same ad company.

Tough. And if more people do the same thing I do, the unethical ad services will end up delivering a substantially-reduced ROI compared to their more-ethical competitors, and lose business to them. That's actually how capitalism is supposed to work - je ne regrette rien.

I'm pretty sure there are, or used to be, Firefox plugins that allow you to bypass most newspapers' pay walls by using genuine subscribers' login details that have either been shared or harvested in some other way.

At any rate, any system you put on a site that might potentially frustrate its users, will eventually be hacked.

I’ve never understood the claim that there’s anything morally questionable about ad-blocking. It’s my computer, my display, my harddrive, etc, not to mention MY attention and mindshare, so I alone should have the authority to determine what gets stored or displayed, or seen by me.

The website owner makes his content free and - in his mind - assumes an implicit contract that we will look at his ads in return for that. But I never agreed to such a contract. Why am I obligated to buy into his business model? Like thousands of other websites he is free to make the alleged contract EXplicit by charging money to see his content.

"User option (c) is frankly, just scum. I debate with these people at times, and they tend to argue that not only should I provide content for free, but it is my fault when they refuse to pay for it. These people have no viable solution to the dilemma, they just blame the website owner for wanting to earn an income, because that is "evil"."

We're not saying that you "should" provide the content for free. We're saying that you ARE providing the content for free so we're availing ourselves of it. The supposed obligation to "pay" for that content by looking at your "quality ads" (whatever that means) is totally in your imagination - we never agreed to any such arrangement, nor is there any statutory or other legal requirement. It's just a claim you're making and we don't have to agree with you.

Nor is it our job to suggest a "viable solution to the dilemma". Coming up with a workable business model is your task. If your content is truly valuable then just charge a subscription fee like countless other websites do.

Peter Nelson quoted for truth!

Ad-blocking is legal, and it always will be. Short of making it illegal (thus creating yet MORE laws, and restricting individual freedom even more), the options available to web-site operators are:

a) Whine and whine and whine and whine. Who knows. Maybe you'll convince enough people to look at your ads and you'll make money. However, no business model I've ever heard of aside from begging and charities work on such a 'guilt' factor.

b) Create a business model that works in spite of ad-blocking.

The web-surfer is under NO obligation, either way, ever. Any claimed obligation is purely imaginary, as clearly stated by Peter Nelson. If you don't want people viewing your content without ads, it's simple; provide it without ads, or lock your site down as a pay site.

What's that? No-one's willing to pay for your content? Too bad!

Finally, may I honestly state that I couldn't give a fig if every ad supported site on the internet went broke tomorrow. All of their content is utterly worthless. If anything, the internet would improve in this scenario.

Keep up to date on my new blog