Guess what? Blocking ads is legal

In a case that has certainly captured the attention of the advertising world, a German court has just ruled against news outlets Zeit Online and Handelsblat, which had asked for an injunction against AdBlock Plus. But the court decided that the service was perfectly legal, and that internet users have the right to prevent bothersome advertisements popping up on their screens, to protect their privacy, and by extension, be free to set their own parameters when using the web.

The verdict is based on the logical and inalienable right of self-determination when using the internet, and will be a blow to companies who say that they are suffering as a result of the use of the advertisement blocking service AdBlock Plus offers. The conclusion is clear: if you’re an advertiser and you really want your message to get over, then respect people’s privacy rather than bombarding them with intrusive ads.

Needless to say, this verdict, which has taken four months to reach, is just the beginning. We can expect an appeal against it, and it’s not the only legal action AdBlock Plus faces: some advertising agencies are pursuing it in a Munich court, while in France, publishers are after it. This promises to be a lengthy battle: AdBlock Plus is not just the main provider of advertisement blocking software on the web, but also has the most developed business model, prompting accusations of blackmail from some companies.

The company has a register of advertisers and web sites that indulge in what the company calls “acceptable advertising”, and asks them for money if they wish to be removed from the list and accept using its formats. The money is used to cover the costs of supervising advertising, but is also its main source of revenue: other providers of this kind of software, such as AdBlock (not related to AdBlock Plus) make their money solely from donations. If a company agrees to the terms of AdBlock Plus, then its advertisements are allowed through a filter and we will see them on our screens, although we can, if we wish, also opt to block them as well.

Beyond any judicial questions, this is simply a matter of common sense: even if publishers and marketing companies do win in the courts, AdBlock Plus software is open code, meaning that we will still have access to it, even if the company goes under or measures are taken to prevent it operating in its present form. The resulting scenario would be potentially chaotic: alerted by all the media fuss, more of us would install this software in our navigators, choosing to manage our blocking lists ourselves, creating an unmanaged situation that could make life more difficult for advertisers.

Trying to prevent people blocking advertisements is a losing game: all that can be done in the medium term is for advertisers to use less aggressive or bothersome models. Bringing legal action, and fantasizing with the idea of blocking the software itself or pursuing people who use ad blockers is just a waste of time. That said, we can expect more court cases and a refusal to accept the logic of the internet.

The Hamburg court’s ruling is a step in the right direction. Let’s see what happens next.

(En español, aquí)