Is Adblocking Ethical?

As a consumer, what’s not to like about adblocking? The browsing experience is improved as news articles load quickly without their flashy, bulky ad counterparts. What’s more, adblockers help the user maintain some online privacy, blocking the tracking that has proliferated across the internet to support the precision of the advertising industry.

However most consumers don’t realise that the growing use of adblockers threatens a key revenue stream for publishers around the world, and possibly the news industry as a whole.

Desperate times call for desperate measures

As advertising revenues dry up for publishers, they are forced to resort to some stronger tactics. First and foremost, the ads that make it through to the consumer need to grow bigger, bolder and more intrusive to squeeze revenues from a shrinking customer base. This practice, ironically drives ever more people to adopt adblockers.

Clickbait and pseudo-truth sensationalism is another consequence of falling ad revenue: consumers are often tricked into clicking on ads that masquerade as enticing articles. This decreases consumer confidence, and may even impact on publishers who don’t resort to these methods. I could give you 10 reasons why clickbait is bad for the Internet — and you’ll never believe reason 8 — but let’s not digress.

Starved of ad revenues, newsrooms are steadily shrinking, and many have closed down. So our democracies depend on news providers whose sole sources of funding are agenda-driven billionaires or enigmatic state-actors.

The capriciousness of adblockers

Adblockers had a fitful start at the beginning of this decade as a collection of scripts and browser plug-ins used and supported by a small group of passionate and technically astute professionals. They understood the privacy issues around online advertising, the cost of their bandwidth, and the relative simplicity of improving a less-than-perfect browsing experience. But in recent years, the use of adblockers has risen meteorically — spreading through word of mouth, through promotion by telecoms companies anxious to reduce their bandwidth costs, and through industrial-scale decisions by companies like Apple, Mozilla, Opera and paradoxically, Google.

What exactly does an adblocker do?

The first generation of adblockers simply blocked advertising images and videos from being downloaded from specific black-listed advertising websites. This relatively simplistic solution was backed by the highest courts as perfectly legitimate behaviour: citizens’ rights to choose what is downloaded onto their computers trump publishers’ rights to earn revenue by showing ads alongside their content. Publishers quickly reacted to this affront to their bottom line by moving their servers around, starting a cat-and-mouse game between themselves and the maintainers of the black-lists.

At some point, adblockers grew weary of the game, and raised the stakes. They began to reverse-engineer the code behind the newspaper websites to determine exactly where ads would appear on a page, and then to make those ads invisible. In most jurisdictions, reverse-engineering others’ code is arguably illegal, especially when it results in financial loss. After all, if reverse-engineering code to hide ads is justifiable, then what about altering code to circumvent paywalls? This pivot in behaviour certainly throws a shadow across the ethics of adblocking.

All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust…

So just how much trust should consumers put in the ethics of adblockers — who have already shown their hand in their disregard of the livelihood of the publishing industry. Now with hundreds of millions of people using adblockers, the stakes — and potential fortunes — have risen dramatically. Most adblockers operate as browser plug-ins, and unknown to most consumers, plug-ins have alarming access to their browsing activity, able to record every site they visit and every keystroke.

With a remarkable twist, users of adblockers, have handed over their deepest secrets to the producers of adblocking software in their bid to protect their privacy from the machinations of the advertising industry. This is a significant degree of trust to place in an industry that has not yet worked out how to best monetise their hundreds of millions of users.

What hope for the publishers?

Publishers who rely heavily on advertising as a source of their revenues seem to have an increasingly small voice at the table deciding the future of the billion dollar ad industry. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Adverts are not inherently bad or wrong. Indeed, they have served as an effortless mechanism for consumers to reward publishers for their work without having to pull out their credit cards.

Perhaps the best solution is to give the consumer a choice. Let those who wish to see reasonable ads continue to do so. And for those who prefer not to see ads, offer an alternative. Subscription models have worked historically for the print newspaper industry, and certainly have some role to play as their readers move online. For those consumers now allergic to annual subscriptions, perhaps offer microsubscriptions (one-off ‘subscriptions’ that last a few hours or days) or even pay-as-you-go purchases.

The verdict

Adblocking isn’t all bad, but it isn’t all good either. There are two reasonable sides to the story for both the adblocker user and the content publisher. Ultimately, a solution is required that will bring benefits to both parties — otherwise both will lose: one their privacy and their pre-post-truth news and entertainment; and the other their business and their livelihood.

The Jamatto Solution

Jamatto offers publishers and vendors the ability to charge small amounts easily, and consumers the ability to make hassle-free small payments. It is surprisingly simple for publishers to install, and consumers only have to set their account up once, by signing in with social or email. After that, it’s a one-click payment mechanism.

PS. Jamatto has come up with a tongue-in-cheek game called ‘News Blues’ to educate consumers about the threats to quality news, and how they can help. Play it here:

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