On the Ethics of Ad-Blocking

As the saying goes, if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product. The business model for most of the Internet revolves around advertising – which in and of itself is not a bad thing. It may be an annoying thing, but passive advertising isn’t actually harmful. Passive advertising is placing ads where people can see them. And savvy marketers will place their ads in places where their target audiences tend to spend their time. If you’re targeting middle-aged men, you might buy ad space on fantasy football or NASCAR web sites, for example. If you’re targeting tween girls, you might buy ad space on any site that might feature something about Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber. And if it stopped there, I don’t think many of us would object – or at least have solid grounds for objection. After all, this advertising is paying for the content we’re consuming. Producing the content costs money – so someone has to pay for it or the content goes away.

Unfortunately, online marketing didn’t stop there. On the web, competition for your limited attention has gotten fierce – with multiple ads on a single page, marketers need you to somehow focus on their ad over the others. And being on the Internet (and not a printed page), advertisers are able to do a lot more to grab your attention. Instead of simple pictures, ads can pop up, pop under, flash, move around, or float over the articles you’re trying to read. Worse yet, ad companies want to be able to prove to their customers that they were reaching the right people and that those people were buying their product – because this makes their ad services far more valuable, meaning they can charge more for the ads.

Enter the era of “active advertising”. It has now become very hard to avoid or ignore web page and mobile ads. Worse yet, the code that displays those ads is tracking where you go and what you buy, building up profiles on you and selling those profiles to marketers without your consent (and without most people even realizing it). Furthermore, those ads use precious data on cell phones and take a lot of extra time to download regardless of what type of device you use. And if that weren’t bad enough, ad software has become so powerful, and ad networks so ubiquitous and so commoditized, that bad guys are now using ad networks to distribute “malware” (bad software, like viruses). It’s even spawned a new term: malvertising.

Over the years, browsers have given users the tools they need to tame some of these abuses, either directly in the browser or via add-ons. It’s been a cat-and-mouse game: when users find a way to avoid one tactic, advertisers switch to a new one. The most recent tool in this toolbox is the ad-blocker. These plugins allow the user to completely block most web ads. Unfortunately, there’s really no way for ad blockers to sort out “good” advertising from “bad” advertising. AdBlock Plus (one of the most popular ad-blockers) has attempted to address this with their acceptable ads policy, but it’s still not perfect.

But many web content providers need that ad revenue to stay afloat. Last week, Wired Magazine announced that they will begin to block people that use ad-blockers on their web site. You will either need to add Wired.com to your “whitelist” (allowing them to show you ads) or pay them $1 per week. They state clearly that they need that ad revenue to provide their content, and so they need to make sure that if you’re going to consume that content that you are paying for it – either directly ($1/week) or indirectly (via ad revenue).

So… what’s the answer here? As always, it’s not black and white. Below is my personal opinion, as things stand right now.

I fully understand that web sites need revenue to pay their bills. However,the business model they have chosen is ad-supported-content, and unfortunately the ad industry has gotten over-zealous in the competition for eyeballs. In the process of seeking to make more money and differentiate their services, they’re killing the golden goose. Given the abusive and annoying advertising practices, the relentless and surreptitious tracking of our web habits, the buying and selling of our profiles without our consent, and the lax policing that allows malware into ads, I believe that the ad industry only has itself to blame here. We have every reason to mistrust them and every right to protect ourselves. Therefore, I think that people are fully justified in the use of ad-blockers.

That said, Wired (and other web sites) also have the right to refuse to let us see their content if we refuse to either view their ads or pay them money. However, I think in the end they will find that people will just stop coming to their web sites if they do this. (It’s worth noting that some sites do well with voluntary donations, like Wikipedia.) Therefore, something has to change here. Ideally, the ad industry will realize that they’ve gone too far, that they must stop tracking our online pursuits and stop trafficking in highly personal information without our consent.

The bottom line is that the ad industry has itself to blame here. They’ve alienated users and they’re going to kill the business model for most of the Internet. They must earn back our trust, and that won’t be easy. Until they do, I think it’s perfectly ethical (and frankly safer) to use ad-blocking and anti-tracking tools.

Below are some of my favorite plugins. Each browser has a different method for finding and installing add-ons. You can find help here: Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Chrome.

  • uBlock Origin – ad-blocker
  • Privacy Badger – anti-tracking plugin
  • HTTPS Everywhere – forces secure connections whenever possible
  • Better Privacy – another privacy plugin, slightly different from Privacy Badger

If you would like to get more involved, you might consider contributing to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.