Ad-Blockers: A More Complex Issue Than You May Think

Whose internet is it, anyway? Is it yours? Mine? Theirs? Let me posit this: Arguably, given the rise of the Google-ification of internet business models, it belongs to and is controlled by the advertisers. Advertisers that, more often than not, pick up entirely too much information about us through the use of cookies and keyword scrapes. How often have you written an email that may mention, say, your Honda Civic, only to notice that, somewhat creepily, you’re being served quite a lot of ads having to do with—surprise! Or not—Honda Civics.

Which is why ad-blockers have assumed the role of consumer champion. Proponents say they liberate the internet to once again become a democratic entity that functions for the people, by the people.

But stalkery ads that follow you around the web aside, there are thorny questions surrounding the rise of blocking software.

But when it comes to web publishers, it’s important to keep in mind that the monetization model echoes that of traditional print media: Site owners have to pay for the content generation, information gathering and all of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating the finished site. And there are two main paths for doing that: Sell subscriptions to end users, or sell advertising to make the content free to visitors. But either way, someone has to pay.

Subscription websites—unless we’re talking about streaming content a la Netflix—are precious few and far between, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times notwithstanding. So, for better or worse, ad blockers effectively remove the primary monetization engine for the entire internet.

On the other side of the argument, if information accessibility is determined by those that pay for the superhighway—and again, that would be the advertisers, largely—then what does that say for the free and transparent exchange of information? Indeed, what does that say about the very concept of an independent knowledge economy? Are we all, complictly, in the pockets of the DoubleClicks and the Ford Motors and the discount online beauty product companies of the world?

Consumers have strong opinions about all of this, as in, most of us don’t feel like contributing to the monetization effort, and most of us want quite a bit less tracking than what we contend with on a daily basis. In a Sophos Security survey asking how respondents would respond to publishers requiring them to disable their ad-blockers, three-quarters (76%) said they would “stop using the website.” About 12% said they would roll over and disable their ad-blockers on the site; and, unfortunately for information purveyors, just 5.5% said they would pay for the subscription version of the site.

But behind all of this is a somewhat seamy underbelly. As in, a lot of ad-blocking companies, like Eyeo and Brave, make money in a fairly insidious way: They simply ask big advertisers to pay to allow their ads to still be shown, even when the blocking software is enabled. So effectively, it’s just a middleman game to these guys, and not really about consumer and information freedom at all.

Put another way: Randall Rothenburg, head of the industry group the Interactive Advertising Bureau, said during the IAB’s annual conference in January that this is simply “an old-fashioned extortion racket” promulgated by profiteers. This is also not a state of affairs that’s lost on John Whittingdale, the UK secretary for culture, media and sport. In a speech at the Oxford Media Convention, Whittingdale called ad-blocking companies a “modern-day protection racket” and said that he would “consider what role there is for the government.”

The racketeering aspect is not true for all ad-blockers of course—just some of the for-profits. And as Sophos Security pointed out, there are some excellent reasons for using the software, including ensuring privacy from those aforementioned stalker ads that track visitors across the web. Ad-blockers also speed up browsing and act as a protection from malvertising. But it’s best to remember that the ad-blocking debate is multi-layered and complex—and one that’s sure to continue to attract the weigh-in from regulators, media companies, advertisers, consumers and webmasters alike.

Have an opinion? Leave a comment below.

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