Adblock Plus. The responsible choice.

Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

Full disclosure, right from the start. I’m a copywriter at eyeo GmbH. I’ve been working there for a year, and it’s awesome :D

Samuel Ricks recently posted an article about eyeo GmbH and Adblock Plus that gained quite a bit of traction, even though it was blatantly false.

Facing falsehoods is something that eyeo and Adblock Plus have to deal with every day. Even over casual beers with friends I sometimes find myself having to defend my company’s business practices and discussing the ethics of ad blocking (I know, the parties I go to are very cool).

The article in question seems nothing more than a hit-piece against eyeo, and makes a pretty good case for using uBlock Origin as your ad blocker of choice. That’s fine and dandy, we at eyeo believe in user choice, and we’re not here to dictate what software or extensions users should use to improve their internet experience. What I do take exception to is the spreading of lies about how we work.

I’d like to set the record straight.

In it for the money

eyeo GmbH is a for-profit company.

Mr. Ricks points out that he has nothing against companies making money, but has a problem with eyeo making money, because we have “few real costs and make a huge amount of money.”

eyeo is a for-profit company. We’ve never claimed to be non-profit, or a charitable organization, or living in a dreamworld where we can do everything for free.

For few “real costs” Mr. Ricks conveniently forgets about the 120+ employees that we have across the world. Maybe he’s fine with working a 40 hour week and not getting paid, but his Twitter banner that proclaims “tech writer for hire” makes me think that’s not the case.

Whitelisting is big work. Fighting circumvention companies is hard. Negotiating with publishers for user rights is pretty tough going. User support is ongoing and 24/7. I would suggest quite strongly that by virtue of the massive amount of work we do every day, we’ve earned that money.

Also, if Mr. Ricks is so concerned about eyeo being a for-profit company, I would invite him to consider where we would have found the money to fight the legal cases that have kept ad blocking legal in Germany and the rest of Europe. So far (to my memory) we have fought, and won, 6 lawsuits. Without these wins, ad blocking for everyone, including his beloved uBlock Origin, would already be illegal in Germany, with dangerous precedents set for the rest of the world. We didn’t see uBlock or any of the other ad blockers stepping up to bat when it came to complex and costly legal challenges. Here’s a list of the court cases we’ve won for ALL ad blockers:

  • Axel Springer:

Regional Court (Cologne)

Regional Court of Appeals

German Supreme Court

  • Sueddeutsche Zeitung

Regional Court (Munich)

Pro7/Sat1 + RTL Interactive

Zeit + Handelsblatt

How it feels when you keep ad blocking legal for everyone

As a final note, Mr. Ricks even says that we “employ several developers but it’s hard to say what they’ve accomplished besides adding their acceptable ads programs.” I’d say, take a look at this chart (provided by Thomas Greiner), and let me know if we’re not doing enough work.

The business model

In Mr. Ricks article, the first major point he makes is that companies must pay eyeo to get their ads whitelisted. That is partly true. There are two things to mention though. Firstly, Acceptable Ads criteria must be met before payment is considered. Secondly, not all companies have to pay. Our business model relies on whitelisting adverts and charging the largest companies for the privilege. Mr. Ricks points out that 90 percent of partners receive this service free of charge, which is also true. However, his main argument seems to be that this figure is meaningless as Google and Facebook actually receive nearly all global ad revenue. I would again ask Mr. Ricks to consider — is this our fault, or is this a symptom of how bad the ad industry really is?

Mr. Ricks then follows up with my personal favorite attack, thanks to Acceptable Ads — “eyeo now sells ads directly to our trusting users.” The way this is phrased sounds like we are doing something really sneaky, and dropping in ads even though users block them. It’s a common argument against using Adblock Plus, but in this article the picture of a bunch of 100 dollar bills in a briefcase really drives home how shady he thinks our business practices are. Mr. Ricks describes it as a conflict of interest, so let’s take a look at Acceptable Ads.

It’s that simple

Firstly, we are SO sneaky about this, that it is the second feature we advertise on the download page for Adblock Plus. It’s hardly a hidden feature. We also let you disable Acceptable Ads with a click, so we’re hardly forcing them down your throat.

Secondly, this is more than a business model. Acceptable Ads are a way of maintaining publisher revenue while not disrupting user experience. In the current digital ecosystem, users have two main choices: be bombarded by intrusive ads on websites, or block all ads. Both of these are win-lose situations. Blocking all ads means that websites die, or publishers take measures to stop ad blocking (circumvention, paywalls, blocking ad-blocking users). No ad blocking means awful user experience, as ad-tech companies are only interested in raising as much revenue as possible.

We are looking for the third way — one that allows users and publishers to coexist in harmony. The simple fact is, if there were no incentive for better ads (i.e. publishers making money) nobody would make better ads. As we have to work on whitelisting, among other things, we need to pay people. We employ over 120 people, both in Germany and remotely, but apparently Mr. Ricks would prefer that we didn’t.

The article also mentions that the process of whitelisting can take weeks, but unfortunately he’s referencing an out-of-date press release for that information.

The Acceptable Ads Committee

Taking aim at another initiative, Mr. Ricks casts doubt on the Acceptable Ads Committee. Those following our story will know that the AAC was set up by eyeo, but is independent. The AAC is solely responsible for defining the criteria of Acceptable Ads, and we not only have no say in what they decide, but are beholden to their rules. He’s pretty much spot on with the people who sit on this independent committee, but seems less than thrilled by the “balance” of the committee (I believe because there are 23 advertisers to 7 user advocates).What he’s misunderstood is that the for-profit and nonprofit members have the exact same amount of actual votes. See the structure here.

Each rectangle = one vote.

Each rectangle in that structure equals one vote — however, each “rectangle,” or group, can have as many “members” as it pleases. Doesn’t change the amount of votes, which each representative casts on behalf of their particular group (see here). So the for-profit and nonprofit coalitions have exactly equal and opposite voting power. This was on purpose.

What he fails to mention, however, is the difference between the AAC and the ONLY other committee that is supposedly fighting for better ads — The Coalition for Better Ads. This coalition is made up of 127 members and affiliates, exclusively from advertising, and contains Facebook, Google, and precisely 0 user advocates, 0 nonprofits, 0 professors, 0 user-group reps — that is ZERO people working for users. Maybe Mr. Ricks would prefer Google, Facebook and the advertising industry alone to decide what an acceptable ad looks like?

The article also shows the “results” of the Acceptable Ads Committee, which is unfortunately just a screen grab of a supposedly “Acceptable Ad” that made it through the system. What the screenshot actually shows is a violation, not an Acceptable Ad. Luckily, we employ people to monitor, report and follow up on these violations, ensuring companies actually play along with the Acceptable Ads criteria. Remember how administering Acceptable Ads was a service and how services take employees and employees need to be paid? Here’s one reason why.

The Competition

Mr. Ricks states at the bottom of his piece that he is “not associated with any ad blocking company” but evidence doesn’t seem to be on his side.

I’d like to give an alternative look at some of the competition, at the same time reiterating that we at eyeo want it to be up to the user to choose the best fit for them.

uBlock Origin: Yep, it’s fast, it’s lightweight and it’s free. Seems like a decent alternative. Except for a few things.

  • It’s a “scorched-earth” ad blocker. By blocking everything, it leaves publishers with no form of sustainable revenue. Which means more paywalls, more blocked content, more dead websites. But that’s OK, because uBlock Origin blocks anti-ad blocker pop ups.
  • Blocking anti-ad blocker pop ups might be illegal. Yup, a large part of Adblock Plus’ softly-softly approach is because we don’t want to be sued into oblivion. More importantly, we don’t want to risk you being sued just by using our product. We’ve won all our legal fights because we ensure that ad blocking, including uBlock Origin, remains legal. uBlock Origin, not so much.
  • More blocking rules occasionally lead to broken websites.

Adguard: Blocks ads. Everything else is paid for with a license. Want the malware and tracking protection that comes free with Adblock Plus, well, you can pay for it. So, if Mr. Ricks is against us making money (taking it directly from the publishers and putting it in our own pocket as he so nicely puts it) how does he defend Adguard? After all, they charge for a product that blocks publisher revenue, and as far as I can see, give nothing back to the publisher. While they do not take payment from publishers, they do allow Google ads, as well as “self-promotional ads” that satisfy a non-transparent filter policy.

Firefox Focus: Pretty good browser. However, you have to log into your favorite websites every time you load it up, and unfortunately doesn’t do a great job of blocking ads.

For example

Mr. Ricks ends his article with an impassioned plea (very impassioned for someone who is a “freelance tech writer” who is “not associated with any ad blocking company”.

That plea is: Please stop using products that support the Acceptable Ads program. It’s taking money directly from the publishers and putting it in eyeo’s pocket. If you’re going to block ads, at least do so responsibly.”

This is where Mr. Ricks’ argument breaks down.

As we’ve seen above, Adblock Plus is the one of only a few ad blockers that actually tries to respect user choice while providing sustainable revenue for publishers, and in turn keep the internet free. Mr. Ricks’ version of “responsible” is to choose an ad blocker that at worst may be illegal, and at best blocks all publisher revenue, leading to more aggressive advertising and circumvention.

At eyeo, we’re all about user choice, so I’ll let you decide why he wrote this transparently incorrect article, and who’s paying him to do so…

If you care about a sustainable, free web, check out Adblock Plus here.