Thoughts on the ad-blocking wars

Someone recently asked me for my opinion regarding ad blocking software (like Adblock Plus) and Internet users who install it.

Opinions on this one range at both extremes. On one hand, some publishers regard ad-blocking software as “theft”.  I’ve also read op-eds and blog posts suggesting that online publishers should simply quit “whining” about the loss of ad revenues.

The issue gets more complicated from there. A few years ago, ad-blocking software firms began taking money from large corporations in exchange for “white-listing” their ads.

So is this really about an ad-free online utopia, or is this a cynical money grab on the part of a handful of software development firms?

Finally, there are reports that ad blocking software doesn’t actually work that well. 

Let’s separate out the extreme viewpoints on both sides, and look for a middle ground.

Fifteen years ago, online ads weren’t obtrusive.

Yes, there was a small, vocal minority who objected to those rotating banner ads at the tops and sides of webpages. Most Internet users understood, however, that online advertising paid for the production and hosting of free online content.

I don’t recall online ads being a major distraction for me in 2001.

Pearson Education (InformIT)

 

But in 2001, many people were still accessing the Internet via dial-up modems.  Later, as high-speed Internet connections became common, online publishers and advertisers made ads increasingly more intrusive.

You all know what I’m talking about. Those large drop-down screens that descend atop the page you’re looking at. Auto-play videos that start within five seconds of you landing on a page.

I’ve written at length about how the Internet is not as much fun to explore as it used to be in a general sense, due to factors such as social media and Wikipedia. More germane to this topic, though, is the simple fact that the technology has become far more intrusive.

This intrusiveness is not limited to online advertising. Apple has been bugging me to upgrade the iOS on my iPhone 6 for two years now. My motto is: One operating system per device. (I have this policy because I’ve never upgraded an operating system without experiencing a subsequent diminishment of hardware performance.)

My dad, who is 72, recently started using the Internet more often when he went back to work to relieve the boredom of retirement. He noticed the intrusiveness of the new, drop-screen video ads and wanted to find a way to block them.

And my dad, I should note–is not a hippie tree-hugger. For many years, he ran his own successful company. My dad is as capitalist as they get.

As I’ve hopefully made clear, then, I fully understand the demand for ad blockers.

MAGIX Software & VEGAS Creative Software
But then…there is another side to this.

If ad blocking software becomes ubiquitous, then publishers will need to find new revenue models.

This will invariably mean less free online content.

There’s an old adage in publishing: “If no one gets paid, then nothing gets made.”

Well, some things will still get made: The Internet will still contain free political screeds and online confessional blog posts. (Because some people, I’ve found, simply have to share their intimate personal details with the world.)

But as for quality news, technical information, and educational content?

No. That will all go behind paywalls–or back into books, offered for sale on Amazon. An Internet without advertising revenues will largely resemble one big pay-as-you-go shopping mall.

I don’t want to see that. On the other hand, I don’t want to be assaulted by a dropdown video ad for Viagra or car insurance when I visit the website of one of my local news channels.

Publishers can–and should–lead the way in dialing back the ad block wars. Old-style ads are fine. Old-style ads are necessary. But publishers must say “no” to the more intrusive ads that have become common in recent years.

If that happens, then the demand for ad blocking software will decline over time.

Again: there will always be ideologues who object to any commercialization of anything. Those are the same people who would rather infect their computers with malware from a bit torrent site than pay $3.99 for an ebook on Amazon, or $0.99 for a song on i-Tunes. Those people are not going to be convinced, no matter how much publishers scale back advertising–unless advertising is scaled back to zero.

Those are the ideologues.

Most people, though, understand that advertising supports free content on the Internet. But they expect that advertising to adhere to unintrusive standards and parameters.

This expectation, I would submit, is not unreasonable, and should be easy enough for publishers to accommodate.