The ethics of modern web ad-blocking

More than fifteen years ago, in response to decreasing ad rates and banner blindness, web advertisers and publishers adopted pop-up ads.

People hated pop-up ads. We tolerated in-page banners as an acceptable cost of browsing free websites, but pop-ups were over the line: they were too annoying and intrusive. Many website publishers claimed helplessness in serving them — the ads came from somewhere else that they had little control over, they said. They really needed the money from pop-ups to stay afloat, they said.

The future didn’t work out well for pop-ups. Pop-up-blocking software boomed, and within a few years, every modern web browser blocked almost all pop-ups by default.

A line had been crossed, and people fought back.

People often argue that running ad-blocking software is violating an implied contract between the reader and the publisher: the publisher offers the page content to the reader for free, in exchange for the reader seeing the publisher’s ads. And that’s a nice, simple theory…

By that implied-contract theory, readers should not only permit their browsers to load the ads, but they should actually read each one, giving themselves a chance to develop an interest for the advertised product or service and maybe even click on it and make a purchase. That’s also a nice theory, but of course, it’s ridiculous to expect anyone to actually do that.

Ads have always been a hopeful gamble, not required consumption. Before the web, people changed channels or got up during TV commercials, or skipped right over ads in newspapers and magazines. Pragmatic advertisers and publishers know that their job is to try to show you an ad and hope you see and care about it. They know that the vast majority of people won’t, and the ads are priced accordingly. The burden is on the advertisers and publishers to create ads that you’ll care about and present them in a way that you’ll tolerate.

And the invention of time-shifting DVRs also made skipping or slipping over adverts possible. A delight.

Web ads are dramatically different from prior ad media, though — rather than just being printed on paper or inserted into a broadcast, web ads are software. They run arbitrary code on your computer, which can (and usually does) collect and send data about you and your behavior back to the advertisers and publishers…

All of that tracking and data collection is done without your knowledge, and — critically — without your consent…There’s no opportunity for disclosure, negotiation, or reconsideration. By following any link, you unwittingly opt into whatever the target site, and any number of embedded scripts from other sites and tracking networks, wants to collect, track, analyze, and sell about you.

RTFA. More detail and analysis is in there…including Marco’s preferences and choices for auxiliary software to inhibit the ad beasties from populating your life.

Poisonally, I almost walked away from WordPress when the decision was made to go with automatic video commercials for advertising on wordpress.com blogs. It drove me nuts just trying to edit and formulate my posts. I finally had to load ad blocking software to retain what little sanity I have.

I think this will be the latest straw that breaks the back of IP providers. This choice of instant-on blather. I’ve seen the wee compensation I receive from adverts on my blog diminish by over half since self-starting videos appeared. Which means our readers are as offended by obnoxious as I am. Money is not why I blog – still, I may choose to go elsewhere if there is an elsewhere without this crap.

Thanks, Om

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