Killing the Internet

Online display advertising is some of the worst advertising in history. Ad units are often obtrusive and misleading. Units can violate our privacy and slow down our devices. Fortunately, several companies and groups have worked together to build ad-blocking software so that you can finally enjoy a beautiful and clean web browsing experience. Unfortunately, the use of such tools is going to send online journalism off the same cliff that print journalism fell off a few years ago.

These online display advertisements are a necessary evil. The most popular alternative, putting content behind a pay-wall, has been widely rejected: a survey found that only 11% of Americans paid for online news in 2013–14, and 89% of those who don’t currently pay said that they’re unlikely to pay for online news in the future. The problem is clear: if you won’t accept pay-walls and you block a website’s ability to monetize through advertising, how do you pay journalists for their hard work?

Every time an ad blocker is activated, the message that we don’t care about quality content gets louder. The trouble is that we do care about quality content, and we would all miss it if it were gone.

A popular response to this conundrum is to declare monetization through advertising “lazy.” When pressed for a better alternative, most will shrug. The pot calling the kettle black if I’ve ever seen it.

In the meantime, organizations that produce ad-block software are laughing all the way to the bank. As profit-oriented corporations, they face a similar monetization challenge: how to get compensated for their hard work. These groups have found two disturbing ways to do so.

Approved Ads is a program that popular ad-block software Adblock Plus utilizes which allows corporations and groups to pay for the right to slip through their filters. These vigilantes have effectively declared themselves the overseer of online display advertising. They do this under the guise of “encouraging better ads,” as seen in the Acceptable Ads Manifesto. In truth, it’s nothing short of racketeering as these organizations interpose between two well-meaning parties in the name of finding profit for themselves.

Another popular method is by charging for an ad-blocker as you would pay for any other piece of software. You’ll be hard-pressed to think of a more ironic action than a user paying for an ad blocker while they refuse to pay the content producer for their work. It makes my head spin.

PageFair estimates that there are 45 million active ad-block users in the United States alone, and that ad blocking could cost publishers nearly $22 billion in 2015. This no longer a potential or conceptual problem as these numbers are real and they’re increasing. There will be many casualties along the way, especially amongst the independent content producers who don’t have the backing of a large corporation or brand.

Perhaps this is a greater shift in our media world, like how Web 2.0 brought the exciting rise of social and interactive elements. Perhaps we’re on the cusp of Web 3.0: a new frontier where there’s simply no content.

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