Update 5–10–2018: eyeo has published a response. I encourage you to form your own opinions on the matter.
Update: I wrote a guide to the best ad blockers for desktop and mobile on my blog. Continue reading if you want to know the full story.
Ad blocking has been the subject of fierce debate ever since the Adblock extension was released in 2002. At the time, it was just a small pet project.
Since then, adoption of ad blockers has exploded, with 615 million devices blocking ads as of December 2016.
Publishers say that ad blockers take away their revenue and prevent free content from being made.
Users say that they need full control over their technology and that advertising often leads to security risks.
Whatever your viewpoint, the cat is out of the bag. Adoption of ad blockers continues to grow year over year.
This post is about a much darker side of ad blocking.
The Beginning — “Acceptable Ads”
In 2011, Adblock Plus and their parent company eyeo GmbH introduced a program called Acceptable Ads. What does that mean?
Basically, they ran a survey which found that 71% of their users would allow ads with “no annoyances”. That means no animations, no sounds, and no flashy colors.
eyeo says that they want to encourage publishers to display non-intrusive ads. They believe that non-intrusive advertising can help fund free content without annoying users.
Through the Acceptable Ads program, eyeo determines which ads are non-intrusive, and adds them to a whitelist. Users can turn this feature off, but it’s enabled by default, and over 90 percent of users have it turned on.
So what’s the problem?
On its face, this seems like a decent premise. Some people are completely against all advertising on the web, but they can always turn the feature off. And eyeo’s own users appear to be open to the idea of non-intrusive advertising.
If you agree with eyeo, you may be wondering what the big deal is. That’s where things get complicated.
Not all non-intrusive ads are part of the Acceptable Ads program. That’s because eyeo has to manually approve ads before they get added to the list.
So how do you get eyeo to approve your ads?
Simple. You pay them.
How much do they charge for this privilege? About 30 percent of all whitelisted ad revenue.
If Google makes $10 million from whitelisted ads, eyeo makes a cool ~$3 million.
eyeo does mention that smaller websites can be whitelisted for free. In fact, they claim that around 90 percent of their partners are given this service free of charge.
But that means diddly when we all know that nearly all global ad revenue goes to just two companies: Google and Facebook.
And Google is in fact a paying customer.
But wait… it gets worse
In 2016, eyeo released what they call the Acceptable Ads Platform. That doesn’t sound too bad, huh?
Let’s see what the platform actually does:
The Acceptable Ads Platform helps publishers who want to show an alternative, nonintrusive ad experience to users with ad blockers by providing them with a tool that lets them implement Acceptable Ads themselves
That’s a pretty fancy way of saying that eyeo now sells ads directly to their trusting users.
You could say that there’s no difference between running their own ad platform and whitelisting other ads. After all, the website owner still has to enable these ads. eyeo is not serving them directly to users without the website owner’s consent.
But this is still a huge conflict of interest. And publishers are incentivized to use eyeo’s own platform because the standard whitelisting process can take weeks.
Where does all this money go anyways?
Let me get this out of the way: I have nothing against businesses making money. Businesses which find a market need and fill that need deserve to make a profit. That’s the only way many services would exist.
But when a company has few real costs and makes huge amounts of money, consumers should take pause before contributing to their bottom line.
By eyeo’s own admission, all ad filter lists are maintained by 3rd parties.
That’s right, hardworking volunteers continually update and maintain the filter lists that allow Adblock Plus to, you know, actually block ads.
The extension itself has remained largely static since its inception. Try doing a search for “Adblock plus new feature” and see what comes up. They employ several developers but it’s hard to say what they’ve accomplished besides adding their acceptable ads programs.
Technically, they don’t even need to pay for hosting, since the extension downloads are hosted by the individual browser companies.
When browsers are updated, extensions sometimes require small updates to maintain compatibility. But there are thousands of totally free extensions out there supported solely by volunteers.
Need more proof? uBlock Origin is a free and open-source alternative which also maintains its own filter list. Here’s what they have to say:
Free. Open source. For users by users. No donations sought.
Without the preset lists of filters, this extension is nothing. So if ever you really do want to contribute something, think about the people working hard to maintain the filter lists you are using, which were made available to use by all for free.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
It should be noted that uBlock Origin and uBlock are not the same thing. There was a fallout with the developers of the original uBlock, and the original coder Raymond Hill decided to make his own version, called uBlock Origin. Since then, the other partner Chris AlJoudi (who owns uBlock) has made some questionable decisions.
Long story short, use uBlock Origin, NOT uBlock. uBlock Origin has no association with uBlock.org.
Who decides what ads are acceptable anyways?
At first, eyeo themselves determined what ads were acceptable. Let’s see… a company blocks ads, takes payment to whitelist some ads, and gets full control over which ads are whitelisted. What could go wrong?
In 2017, they probably realized that this made them look either evil or stupid, so they invented the Acceptable Ads Committee.
Who sits on this committee? I thought you’d never ask. As of 2018, the committee is comprised of:
- 3 advertisers
- 15 ad tech agencies
- 5 ad agencies
- 5 publishers and content creators
- 2 creative agents
- 4 researchers and academics
- 1 user agent
- 4 digital rights organizations
- 2 users
It seems like they’re actually trying here with the inclusion of some user advocates, but the imbalance is obvious. Let’s count those up:
- 23 advertisers
- 11 somewhat neutral entities
- 7 user advocates
So what are the results?
Over on the Adblock Plus forums, there are many user complaints about intrusive ads which have been whitelisted. Here’s a user-provided screenshot of some “acceptable ads” that made it through the program:
Do those look acceptable to you?
It’s about more than the annoyance
Seeing an annoying ad here or there is, well, annoying. Especially when the ad blocker is being paid to sort them out.
But much worse things have happened as a result of online advertising.
In 2016, Forbes served advertisements containing malware on its website.
If freaking Forbes can’t be trusted to block malware ads on its own site, who can you trust? The problem here is that publishers contract with giant ad networks which decide what ads are shown.
In the name of the bottom line, these ad networks claim that they can’t verify the contents of their ads. It would just be too expensive.
Imagine if you opened up the New York Times and saw a full-page ad for a check cashing scam. It just wouldn’t happen, because the premise that publishers (or ad networks) have no control over the ads they display is absolutely ridiculous.
They trade away the reader’s security for pennies.
Which companies use Acceptable Ads?
The eyeo program named “Acceptable Ads” is used by:
- Adblock Plus on desktop and iOS
- Adblock Browser on iOS and Android
- AdBlock extensions
- Crystal on iOS and Android
AdBlock itself is an interesting case — it used to be an independent extension created by one developer in his spare time.
In 2015, he sold AdBlock along with its 40 million users to an “anonymous buyer”. Immediately afterward, it started using the Acceptable Ads program.
I wonder who that anonymous buyer might have been.
Notable competitor Adguard has a similar program for allowing relevant ads. The difference is that Adguard does not take payment to whitelist ads — it seems they have their users’ best interest at heart.
So what can be done?
Install a better ad blocker.
On desktop, uBlock Origin gets my vote as a free, open-source, and reliable browser extension.
If you’d rather use Safari on iPhone, you can install a content blocker. These apps work by filtering data in the background when you use Safari:
Both apps also offer a premium version, but the free versions block all ads in Safari. There are no annoying limitations on the free versions.
Oh, and don’t take your chances installing a random ad blocker from the Chrome store. AdGuard recently found that over 20 million people have malware installed posing as an ad blocker in Chrome.
Please stop giving eyeo money
Seriously, please stop using products that support the Acceptable Ads program. It’s taking money directly away from publishers and putting it in eyeo’s pocket.
If you’re going to block ads, at least do so responsibly.
Full disclosure: I am not associated with any ad blocking company.
Originally published at sricks.com.