The Short-Lived Business of Ad Blocking

Ad blocking apps were in the news last month for reasons other than rationalizing their attack on the lifeblood of the web. The Interactive Advertising Bureau told makers of Ad Block Plus, Eyeo, that they weren’t welcome at its annual leadership conference.

Staying true to the millennial attitude that has come to be the hallmark of the ad-blocking industry, Eyeo posted the email thread, which showed the IAB cancelling their ticket. Ugh. Here’s the thing, if you blackmail an industry, they’re not going to let you come to their party.

The guys at Shine don’t get it either. FWIW, Shine is a venture funded anti-virus firm that pivoted into network level ad-blocking. My bet is that pivot wasn’t guided by an altruistic vision for a better web experience as much as an opportunity to make money. Shine has raised almost $3m from VCs.

What is this, tumblr?

And there’s the rub — for all of the drama they create around saving bandwidth and stopping bad ads, ad blocking is a commercial enterprise. The sanctimonious rhetoric and painfully emo quotes used to justify actions of the ad blockers can’t hide the fact that they are businesses. Eyeo straight up blackmails publishers and ad networks, Shine charges network operators a SaaS fee (or maybe not? they claim to not be charging carriers a fee, making for a potentially sketchy revenue model) to violate net neutrality standards, and the newest kid on the block, Brave, substitutes advertising they deem better, with a promise to distribute shares to publishers and users.

Dubious commercial practices aside, what happens if ad blockers accomplish their mission of a web free of ads they don’t like? Will they voluntarily shut down once the advertising ecosystem has learned our lesson from these ad-blocking sages?

There’s a very low probability Shines’ pitch to investors explaining the pivot away from anti-virus contemplated fixing the display ecosystem and then winding down.

In any case, publishers will likely just prevent browsers running ad blockers from accessing content. Bild released numbers showing a 2/3 drop in ad blocking once it prompted readers to stop ad blocking. Forbes saw similar numbers.

While Eyeo, Brave, and Shine have helped foster conversations around annoying and disruptive advertising experiences, the long term business models of blackmail, violating net neutrality, or surreptitiously forcing a revenue model on content producers aren’t viable. Especially when your leverage, in the form of a user-base, evaporates at the first sight of tension. The most likely outcome is one where we tell future generations of digital marketers about a brief time when publishers didn’t block ad blockers.