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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, but it’s a blurry line in reality.

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. Publishers are lucky if people even read the content with any real attention today, let alone the ads around it.

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.

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. And there’s so much consolidation amongst ad networks and analytics providers that they can easily track your behavior across multiple sites, building a creepily accurate and deep profile of your personal information and private business.

All of that tracking and data collection is done without your knowledge, and — critically — without your consent. Because of how the web and web browsers work, the involuntary data collection starts if you simply follow a link. 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.

That’s why the implied-contract theory is invalid: people aren’t agreeing to write a blank check and give up reasonable expectations of privacy by clicking a link. They can’t even know what the cost of visiting a page will be until they’ve already visited it and paid the price.

And it’s all getting so much worse, so quickly.

I’ve never been tempted to run ad-blocking software before — I make most of my living from ads, as do many of my friends and colleagues, and I’ve always wanted to support the free media I consume. But in the last few years, possibly due to the dominance of low-quality ad networks and the increased share of mobile browsing (which is far less lucrative for ads, and more sensitive to ad intrusiveness, than PC browsing), web ad quality and tolerability have plummeted, and annoyance, abuse, misdirection, and tracking have skyrocketed.

Publishers don’t have an easy job trying to stay in business today, but that simply doesn’t justify the rampant abuse, privacy invasion, sleaziness, and creepiness that many of them are forcing upon their readers, regardless of whether the publishers feel they had much choice in the matter.

Modern web ads and trackers are far over the line for many people today, and they’ve finally crossed the line for me, too. Just as when pop-ups crossed the line fifteen years ago, technical countermeasures are warranted.

Web publishers and advertisers cannot be trusted with the amount of access that today’s browsers give them by default, and people are not obligated to permit their web browsers to load all resources or execute all code that they’re given.

I recently started using Ghostery on my computers, and a simple homemade iOS content blocker that I may release for iOS 9’s launch. The web performance improvements with these are staggering, and the reports of quite how much Ghostery is blocking on most pages is shocking and disgusting.

Web publishers had things pretty nice for a while. Monetization was usually as simple as dropping a <script> tag from an ad service into your template. Want to add stats and analytics? Just drop in another <script> tag from another service. The bizdev people made a deal to integrate another analytics service for another few pennies? Go ahead, drop in yet another <script> tag.

Those days are over. It won’t be easy for many to move on, and not everyone will make it.

This won’t be a clean, easy transition. Blocking pop-ups was much more incisive: it was easy for legitimate publishers to avoid one narrowly-useful Javascript function to open new windows. But it’s completely reasonable for today’s web readers to be so fed up that they disable all ads, or even all Javascript. Web developers and standards bodies couldn’t be more out of touch with this issue, racing ahead to give browsers and Javascript even more capabilities without adequately addressing the fundamental problems that will drive many people to disable huge chunks of their browser’s functionality.

But publishers, advertisers, and browser vendors are all partly responsible for the situation we’re all in. Nobody could blame the users of yesteryear for killing pop-up ad rates, and nobody should blame the users of 2015 for blocking abusive, intrusive, misleading, and privacy-stealing ads and trackers, even if it’s inconvenient for publishers and web developers.

Fortunately, better monetization methods exist. It has never been easier to collect small direct payments online, cutting out the advertising middlemen and selling directly to your true customers. For publishers who want to remain ad-supported, ethically and tastefully presented native advertising, such as sponsored posts in feeds and our community’s podcast ads, has proven to be more effective, more profitable, and less user-hostile by far compared to awful network <script> embeds.

In a few years, after the dust has settled, we’re all going to look back at today’s web’s excesses and abuses as an almost unbelievable embarrassment. Hopefully, the worst is behind us. And it’s time to stop demonizing people who use tools to bring that sanity to their web browsers today.

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