Ad blockers are the condoms of the Internet.

Aug 12, 2015 · 5 min read

40% of UK consumers use one. That number is just 15% if you listen to the IAB. It’s not a big deal. It’s an opportunity. It’s the ad industry’s Napster moment. According to an Pagefair and Adobe report, it will lead to almost $22bn in lost ad revenue this year — up 41% on last year.

Content blocking, and by extension, ad blocking is a trend that’s not going away. You’ve probably read the agonised pros and cons being spouted by people on Twitter, in articles and elsewhere. The reality of why this technology is growing so quickly is pretty simple.

Remember the line about people not hating ads, only bad ads. Nowadays, they hate interruptive, obstructive, crap, creepy, ubiquitous ads. Now imagine what will happen when more people realise that a non-trivial amount of the advertising that they’re being served is actively hostile towards them. Shit in, shit out.

Consider that in the last month alone, Trustwave found well over 1.25m machines infected by the the RIG 3.0 exploit kit. Over 90% of those were infected as a result of malicious advertising. Malwarebytes found evidence that hackers were using malicious ads on Yahoo’s network of sites to similar ends. Millions of people could potentially have been affected and infected. Cyphort reported that over 10m people worldwide may have visited websites containing malicious advertisements in just ten days. Risk IQ uncovered a 260% increase in so-called ‘malvertising’ in the last 12 months.

In many of these cases, you don’t even need to click an ad thanks to the wonder that is auto-play audio and video. In others, fake Flash updates are used to spoof users. It’s not just desktop advertising that’s vulnerable. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests that mobile malvertising is a trend, not just a blip on the radar.

Is it any wonder that users are becoming increasingly distrustful when they use Ghostery or another plugin only to see this when they visit a site. Is it surprising that they stop visiting sites when some phantom ad network pops them out of the window they’re in on their phone and delivers them to a page where they can download yet another gambling app? Will it be surprising if those numbers continue to rise as more people realise the magnitude of the threat that ads could potentially pose? It isn’t and it won’t.

One of the more nuanced takes on the debate appeared in this last week’s Monday Note. The piece, which is well worth taking time to read and digest — was perhaps most notable for this quote from Rene Richie of iMore.

“When we do get good ads, as soon as they finish their allotted impressions, they go away, and the ad spot gets back-filled with “remnants” which get progressively worse and worse the more we refresh the site.

Yes, we’re well aware of how insane that sounds.

We also have no ability to screen ad exchange ads ahead of time; we get what they give us. We can and have set policies, for example, to disallow autoplay video or audio ads. But we get them anyway, even from Google. Whether advertisers make mistakes or try to sneak around the restrictions and don’t get caught, we can’t tell. It happens, though, all the time.”

This is the dirty big not-so-secret at the heart of the problem. Yes there’s a shit-ton of blame to be heaped on publishers who have become enablers of website obesity by allowing so much bloat on their pages. There’s an even bigger pile to be heaped on the exchanges and networks for not performing basic hygiene checks on what’s being shovelled out in their units.

It would seem that a lot of these companies simply don’t have the technology in place to distinguish between advertisers and hackers. Some are saying they’re trying to address that. Others couldn’t care less. The scary part is that this is only going to get worse. As programmatic grows, the vetting on what ends up in networks gets even more difficult and consequently lax in many cases.

With that in mind, can anyone really be shocked that Apple is bringing content blocking to their users in iOS9 and OS X El Capitan? Is it surprising that an increasing number of people are looking at tools like uBlock, AdBlock and others to protect them from terrible user experiences, bloated websites that drain their data allowance and malicious actors who don’t just want them to lose weight fast, but actively want them to download trojans and other forms of malware and scareware.

The debate about the pros, cons, goods and evils of content blocking isn’t going away. We’re in for a lot more conversation about how adblocking users are taking crumbs from the table of publishers and journalists. Getting past this and getting to something that might produce some clarity and coherence about the real issues means we’ll need to reframe the debate.

Chris Dixon sparked debate on Twitter recently when he said that ad blocking wasn’t a problem for the publishers he knew. When you consider he’s on the board of Buzzfeed, you can see why that conversation probably doesn’t come up. They don’t outsource their revenue generation. You don’t see pop-overs, pop-ups, interstitials, autoplay video or any of the other mosquito-bite irritant units there.

The reality is that for many people, content blockers are the condoms of the Internet. No-one’s forcing you to wear one, but let’s face it, you’d have to be an idiot not to when you consider the promiscuity of the average mobile and Internet user. Back in 2011, the average person in the UK visited 2,518 pages on 81 domains in 53 sessions. Now people are even more connected — and the endless sharing of ‘you wont’ believe what happened next’ content on social networks and elsewhere means that number is likely an order of magnitude higher.

The ad blocking debate needs to change. The tools needs to improve. Publishers need to provide their readers with a better, less bloated and far less spammy and shitty experience. Exchanges, networks and startups need to do more to stem the tide of crap that many of them unwittingly or willingly accept. Brands and organisations need to do more due dilligence and put their agencies and the tools they use under pressure to ensure that their ads are being delivered as part of a quality experience rather than a crappy one. I think everyone understands that the machine that is the advertising and publishing industry needs to be fed, but we don’t need to take a human centipede approach to doing so.

Until we get to that point, stay protected.


Written by

Early stage investor & karaoke enthusiast. MD at Techstars. Board at Lingvist & Paranoid Fan.

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