Ad-blocking and the compromises of conscience

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 11, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

After reading Ken Fisher's "Why Ad Blocking is Devastating the Sites You Love," I admit to mixed emotions. In fact, I wonder if I can possibly navigate the issue without revealing myself as hopelessly hypocritical.

Fisher is writing after Ars Technica, for which he works, blocked content from ad blockers for twelve hours. Technically, the experiment was a success, but it met with mixed reactions.

"There was a healthy mob of people criticizing us for daring to take any kind of action against those who would deny us revenue even though they knew they were doing so," Fischer writes. "Others rightly criticized the lack of a warning or notification as to what was going on."

Moreover, he adds, "We made the mistake of assuming that everyone who is blocking ads at Ars is doing so with malice. As it turns out, only a few people are, and many (most?) indicated you are happy to help out." To help gain more support, Fischer explains the economics of ads and their necessity for online sites.

What he does not say, but could have, is that this necessity is greater than ever in many cases, because the price of ads slumped during last year's recession, and in many cases has not recovered yet.

Mixed emotions

Being reminded of the economic truths that Fischer spells out leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, much of my writing is published online. The sites on free and open source software (FOSS) that publish me derive at least part of their income from ads. That means that I am paid partly by those ads. Therefore, cold calculation tells me that I should support online ads by every means possible.

Equally, you could say that FOSS itself -- or at least the aspects to which I make my most frequent contributions -- are directly supported by FOSS. By not viewing the ads, I am also letting FOSS down.

On the other hand, I hate ads. I'm the sort of person who refuses to wear name brand clothing. I remove or cover labels if possible. I watch DVDs rather than live television because I find commercials jarring and distasteful. The only reason I don't scream obscenities at telemarketers is that hanging up wastes less time. I won't even use the free note pads that local real estate agents keep jamming into the mail box. My credo is that if someone wants me to advertise for them, they can pay me -- and it had better be a good price, too if I'm going to look like a mindless consumer.

Of course, I'm not entirely consistent. To avoid serious leg injuries, I have to endure some bizarre combination of stripes on my running shoes. I have also written and designed ads, although only for products and people I believe in. Even so, a nagging voice in the back of my mind keeps telling me that, if I do too much of this kind of compromise, the bad karma will have me spending my next hundred incarnations as a cockroach.

Stumbling towards a resolution

With this attitude, my first instinct is to become an active user of Ad Blocker, Ad Block Plus, or whatever other extension might be available. After all, it's not like I've clicked an online ad more than once or twice a year anyway.

It's also interesting how much cleaner many sites are when you don't see their ads. The extreme case is a site belonging to a local blogger who boasts of making forty thousand a month through ads. Viewed through an ad blocker, his front page is reduced to a couple of paragraphs of text and maybe two or three ads that have eluded my filters.

The trouble is, as Fisher points out, online ads are not paid for by click-throughs, but by views. In other words, if I don't see the ads, the sites don't earn money, and I'm not supporting them. Since those interested in FOSS are often both idealistic and technical, that means that a significant proportion of a FOSS sites' readers are probably depriving it of income.

So what's the solution? I could just turn off ad blocking and cultivate my blindness to marketing. I already have developed this tendency in print -- so much so that I have trouble finding an ad even when someone tells me that it might interest me. After a couple of pages, I simply don't see an ad, except to identify it for what it is and quickly move on. In much the same way, if a radio or TV is playing in the background while something more interesting is happening, I have a hard time focusing on them even when I want to.

Thanks to pop-up ads and other techniques, this blindness is harder to develop online. Increasingly, ads thrust themselves under your attention by interfering with your reading. Still, it could be done, in much the same way that I immediately identify and discard the spam that bypasses my email filters. And, once the blindness is fully developed, everyone would win: I don't have to read the ads, and the sites still get paid because I am technically viewing. I'm simply not reading, that's all.

Yet even this solution feels like a cheat. It means that advertisers are not really getting what they pay for, and I am escaping through a moral loophole.

What I would really like to see is an alternative funding model evolve, as Matt Asay suggests. If a less obnoxious revenue stream than ads could emerge, then the mixed feelings I am describing might disappear.

However, I have no idea what that alternative might be, or how to work towards it (Nor does Asay, apparently -- just a faith that one might exist). Given that I am not about to read every ad I encounter with sympathy and interest, my ambiguous position towards online ads seems likely to stay unresolved.


  • Don't care either way but ...

    Don't know what the big deal is. As much of life ... whole issue seems pretty pointless to me. From both sides of the issues. Only ad blocking I use is for the extreme types, pop ups, stuff that opens new windows ... the obnoxious kind. Other than that could careless if ads are there. If people don't want to interact with ads on sites ... Then hey .. how about IGNORE them ... Dont CLICK on them.

    All this they are tracking us blahblahblah nonsense. It's the 21st century, get real. Everytime you push a button someone is probably recording it anyway. Your ISP logs every site you visit. Depending on who they are affiliated w or what software they want to put in place. They can probably figure out what you had for breakfast ... Even if you're comp is up to it's ears in antiad/spy/mal/virii etc.

    So this whole intrusion into my privacy is ridiculous nonsense anyway. It's the 21st century privacy was left in the past. big-smile

    From the site owners side. If they aren't smart enough to figure out ways around adblockers then I consider it natural selection. Gives them motivation to find alternatives and step up their game. Hmmm maybe start focusing on great content. That might help bring in visitors and revenue huh ? big-smile

    Think a good % of the web is pure trash content anyway w no real value to anyone. The good sites, the sites with real value + great content will survive regardless. They could easily come up with alternatives or post a note. Please support our site ... disable adblocking for Most of the users would do it. Provided the site owner gives them something they want and doesn't go crazy with the sites loyalty.

    So actually think the adblocker epidemic is good for the internet. It's separate the women/men from the girls/boys online. Those trash sites that go belly up cuz of dried up ad revenue ? Good ... one less site of net pollution to clog up the internet. Makes it easier to find quality sites/sources of info.

    Plus I dislike the arrogant self serving netgods ... aka: google/Facebook/Binghooo. They get much revenue from ads. They also act like they are too big to fail. We ( all the small peasants of the world) cannot poss do without them and they can treat people however they like. So if it hits them where it hurts ... THEIR WALLET, then good.
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  • block them

    hmmm Ad makers really have their backs against the wall ay they are losing all their revenue waaa waaa waaa have a cry
    good to see they hate ad blocking software, every1 should use it.
    ad block plus

    great ad blocker blocks everything.
  • every1 blocks ads thesedays

    everyone i know, my friends my school mates are all using ad blockers its the new internet, Ad Free.
    why should anyone online visit a website and be annoyed and bombarded with ads? this is why we block them, also most ads contain spyware or tracking cookies even malware and without out consent stuff is being put on opur pc's without our permission, no1 has any right to add spyware to my pc using advertising to do it. in 5 years time all web based browsers will jhave ad blocking technology and internet ads will automatically be blocked its just the way the nets gonna be and all these advertisers will be out of business and that makes me very happy

    To any1 reading this download an Ad blocker and have an ad free internet like the rest of us that use them and put advertisers out of business, they are nothing but spammers and scammers anyway.
  • i block all online ads

    i use ad blocking software and i block all online advertising i come across i experience ad free internet and thats just the way it should be.
    To these morons who think they can block ad block uses ..well you make me laugh, with ad block enabled i entered a website that apparently blocked any1 using ad blockers, i was not blocked from thier website, in fact i bolcked all of their website ads while i was there and then i left, so any1 saying they can block ad blockers i tell you ,you are full of bull sh!t because you cannot.
    i hope you lose all your revenue from advertisments, thats your problem maybe you will need to get a real job like the rest of us instead of infesting websites with all forms of annoying ads so ou can make a quick $$ you have no argument, people hate ads ands we will continue to block ads no matter what. get used to it , advertising online is in big trouble, lazy scum who use it to make easy money your days are numbered and you deserve everything you get. shut your mouths and get a life we ad blockers are here to stay.
  • Web 3.0

    The sooner the people understand that advertisement is not a sustainable business model in the web the better.

    If people think that their revenue is being _stolen_ than they should sue or read the HTML spec.
  • just some more thoughts

    I think one thing that is being overlooked is that blocking adds has evolved from just trying to make a site "less annoying" to making web surfing less vulnerable to exploits. You can pretty much thank all the sites that have abused javascript and the like for that.

    Personally, I don't mind seeing most advertisements when sites don't abuse my browser (e.g. throw a pop-up in my face etc). Some sites don't do such practices, and I definitely try to support them where I can. The problem is that generally the same facilities (e.g. javascript and other forms scripting) are a double edged sword leading many users to resort to disabling them completely. An alternative is extensions such as noscript which will allow you to whitelist what sites you want to allow your browser to run the scripts of.

    What I mention is just one more factor of the online advertising dilemma that show much there really isn't an easy answer for.
  • Ads and Ad Blocking

    I hate ads that pop up and cover the information that I want to read. I hate ads that cover the site for some amount of time, then show you the information you are looking for. I hate ads that make you move your mouse and click on something to make them go away.

    However, I typically like Ads through Google. Why? Because Google makes the ads relevant to what I am looking for anyway. They are typically non-flashing, text based, over in the corner or along the bottom, terse and well-written.

    In paper magazines ads are usually sold based on the editorial content of the magazine that month. Taking about CAD? Put lots of CAD advertising in. Talk about Clouds? That is the time to advertise storage and server systems.

    Maybe online advertising space has to be micro-focused, so that the pages you are viewing carry ads that are interesting to the viewer.
  • Wrong

    If I'm using an ad-block, that means your ads are annoying me. Why is my FOSS site annoying me and blaming me for it, instead of doing ads I'd not want to block?
  • Sometimes I like ads. No, really!

    I like print ads in my favorite magazines and I swear I'm not just saying that because I work in print. I've actually purchased magazines *for* the ads (an issue of Atomic Ranch, for example -- I wanted ideas for products to buy as we remodel our house).

    Good ads are targeted to readers who want to know about those specific products/services/events (or who might want to know about them if given the opportunity). I bought 4 magazines yesterday (2 tech, 1 print design magazine, and a music magazine) and each one of them had ads that intrigued me. The ads ranged from computers, to music and design events, to PhotoShop filters. After seeing the ads, my husband and I both visited some websites from the ads and planned/discussed future purchases for products ranging from $99 to a few-hundred bucks.

    Online ads are less effective with me percentage-wise because we are inundated with ads that are just randomly thrown into the wild. Very targeted ads online sometimes work with me, however.

    One thing I really hate now is that to get around our use of the DVR, advertisers are putting products directly into all the t.v. shows. The Biggest Loser is the WORST about this.

    In my perfect world, we'd see fewer ads in general just cluttering our surroundings, but the ads we would see would be high-quality, targeted ads (which would also be much more effective).
  • Blocking only flash and gifs?

    I am also a adblock-user.
    The reason is primarily flash-ads (moving, dancing, with sound) and moving gifs.

    I _HATE_ coming into a news site, only to hear a loud sound scream through my speakers. It hurts. And hence, it hurts the news site, since the result is me (and many others like me) installs both FlashBlock and AdBlock. And then they loose income...

    I would concider removing both flashblock and adblock, _IF_ it got illegal to use flash in ads. But until then... No ad-income from me!
  • Darwinian Blocking

    I use a simple method in deciding what to block, if it aggravates me I block the ad. Once in a while I go through my block list and if I have a lot of individual block rules I consolidate them into a single rule that blocks all similar ads.

    This gives the site revenue from non-aggravating ads and no revenue from aggravating ones. If the site owner sees this trend they are going to lean towards putting up ads that make them money and I'll have less flashy stuff to block.

    I'd suggest this to others, kill off the bad ads before they can breed more and leave the good ones alone so they propagate.

    I even click on the interesting ones I see, sometimes they lead me to something worth buying.
  • If you use an ad-blocker, are you failing to suppport your favorite FOSS sites? No.

    First, static text ads are tolerable and can be justified, in moderation. But the ads went too far and users needed a timely solution to protect themselves from abuses.

    Ads went overboard by implementing animation, flash, pop-ups, grabbing focus, taking over our view port, and more. They didn't just want to show us ads, they wanted to shove them in our faces. They consume our resources, our most precious one of all - never getting it back - time, and we don't even get a say before they start charging in with their blazing circus vying for our attention. Look at me! No look left. No look up here. See I'm moving more. I'm jumping. I'm flashing. I know folks that get nauseous seeing images jump on the screen while trying to read something, shouldn't they be able to protect themselves? Isn't that an accessibility issue that is talked about so much on the web? Anyone know how much productivity is lost by workers subjected to ads during work hours? The same technology to display ads is used for some other annoying web features. Turn off those features, you also turn off ads. What's an end user suppose to do? Some sites are more ads than content, and that is their true existence. How is an ordinary user suppose to know? There are also ads with offensive material, and the presumptuous ads that say they are tailored to the individual. I don't want to be pigeon-holed, categorized, or limited. I jump on the Internet because it is open, with endless possibilities and information. Unfortunately the abuses, created a desperate need for a timely solution.

    Last, there are sites with responsible ad usage or none at all (they bite the bullet for a principle), don't we want to support them? And we do this by visiting them, talking about them, promoting them, and blocking ads, those nasty non-stop moving, sometime offensive content, ads. There is nothing wrong with protecting oneself and blocking ads to offensive practices, and selectively allowing responsible FOSS sites. No? imho, that's the solution.

    Please don't feel guilty.
  • Ad-blocking and the compromises of conscience

    Me, it's very simple: no ads, period. Can't stand them in any media, shape or form. I kill ads with a passion, I shoot them down like varmin. So, either we find a way to deal with money without bombarding people with ads or we keep on suffering. And I have absolutely no qualms about blocking ads and by doing so financially hurting sites that depend on them to survive. No qualms at all. Tough luck, I say.
  • Is it the user's fault?

    What do you think of Mike Masnick's take on this issue in "<a href="">Don't Blame Your Community: Ad Blocking Is Not Killing Any Sites</a>"?
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