Is ad blocking unfair?

This article first appeared in Legal Web Watch October 2015. Legal Web Watch is a free monthly email service which complements the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers. To receive Legal Web Watch regularly sign up here.

Ad blocking has been much discussed recently, particularly since Apple allowed apps with ad blocking capabilities to operate with Safari in iOS 9. However, the steam had already been building for some time as users have got increasingly frustrated with intrusive advertising and web browser tracking degrading their experience.

“Anti-ad blocking” company PageFair, in its August 2015 Ad Blocking Report, gives the numbers:

  • There are now 198 million active adblock users around the world.
  • Ad blocking grew by 41% globally in the last 12 months.
  • US ad blocking grew by 48% to reach 45 million active users in 12 months up to June 2015.
  • UK ad blocking grew by 82% to reach 12 million active users in 12 months up to June 2015.

Those with vested interests in the media and advertising industries are crying foul: ad blocking will “break the internet”; it is unethical or unfair because it denies advertising revenue to free websites. PageFair estimates ad blocking will cost publishers nearly $22 billion during 2015.

Paul Bernal counters this, making the ethical case for ad blocking:

“I think that users of ad-blocking software are taking a positive route both ethically and economically. If anything, it is by extending the use of adblocking software that the future of the internet is being secured, not the reverse. The more people that use adblockers, the better the future for the internet. …

Fundamentally, and this is the point that the advertising industry seems very reluctant to admit, the current model is broken. …

Without disruption, nothing will change. That is where adblockers come in, and why the use of them is a positive ethical step. If we want change, we have to act in order to make that change happen. Without adblockers, would the advertising industry be willing to change their model? The evidence points strongly against that.”

So what might the new models be? PageFair say “we want to help create a more sustainable advertising ecosystem, one in which publishers can focus on loyalty and engagement instead of traffic and clicks, and make money without depleting their audience’s goodwill” which is lovely, but whatever does it mean?

Others look to the development of more effective subscription models or use of micro-payments.

John Battelle, a leading industry insider, speculates about a more radical solution … maybe users should control their own data:

“It’s insane that as consumers we outsource our data wardrobe to Facebook, Apple, Google, and the hot mess that is the adtech industry. The consumer behavior I believe will change our world, and by extension the economics of publishing and advertising, is a shift in control of our own data from third party platforms to ourselves as the platform. Put in internet terms, from the server to the node (we’re the nodes). If this happens, all manner of innovation and efficiency will erupt.”

Ultimately we want our internet back. The last thing we want is the battle some advocate (and which is already happening):

“If I were a publisher giving free content, I’d block my content to these ad blockers.”

Now that’s how you’re going to break the internet. We don’t like, even detest, this increasingly intrusive advertising and tracking. Don’t tell us we’re wrong. Figure out a better way to make money.

Nick Holmes is Editor of the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers and Legal Web Watch. Follow him on Twitter @nickholmes.

Image: Stop! by Axel Schwenke on Flickr.

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