The mysteries of ad-blocking

The development of ad filtering or ad blocking software to stop advertisements appearing on our computer screen dates back a few years, but is still something of a mystery for most of us: most of my students fall into two categories: if they think about them at all, they either see them as a panacea, or they see them as something that publications will have to learn to deal with, given that more and more people are using them.

This is still something that, for some reason, we don’t want to talk about, an uncomfortable subject to be avoided if possible. But filters are now very much a part of the way that we interact with our computers and other devices. They are increasingly sophisticated, and can be used in a variety of ways, social filters, ones that we can program, and others that learn from how we use the internet, all allowing us to avoid advertising if we wish.

At the same time, we have to accept that advertising makes the internet go round. This is a debate that has been around for some time, with two very clear arguments: those who believe that ad blocking is immoral, and in a certain sense, an act of theft; and those of us who think that using them is a response to abuse, similar to how we reacted by using pop-up blockers to block pop-ups, and that both advertisers and those who publish online will have to come to terms with what the market believes is acceptable.

The debate has not been helped by the way that two of the main providers of ad blocking software, AdBlock and AdBlock Plus have behaved: both of them are open source programs, whose only real difference is that AdBlock takes a more purist approach by blocking everything put into its filters, while AdBlock Plus cuts a deal with advertisers, who will be allowed through if they do not use intrusive format, creating a white list, although users can still prevent those on it from getting through.

Both approaches have their merits, but the nub of the question is still the starting point: rather than seeing things in proactive terms in deciding to block all advertising, instead a reactive approach is taken, should the user wish to block advertising. In my experience, the latter rarely happens. Most of us forget that we have activated a plug in, we forget that advertising exists, we get used to speedier internet use, and we don’t think about proactively using pages that might be trying to be less invasive about advertising.

This is an important point: the user who installs an ad blocker has basically retired from the advertising market, and is only exposed to advertising if he or she decides to allow it through. All other pages come free of advertising, a clear case of the innocents paying for the sins of others. It should work the other way round: publicity should be allowed to be seen, except when a page breaks the rules and allows invasive formats through.

It’s not easy to calculate just how many of us block ads, given that they are divided up according to the navigator they use. The service was originally only available on Firefox, but is now available on Internet Explorer and Safari.

Based on the data provided by AdBlock Plus, some 251 million people have downloaded the service, and around 20 million actively use it on a daily basis. If we add the 10 million users on Chrome, along with smaller numbers on other navigators, we are still talking about a relative minority. But the profile of these users is interesting: most of them are what might be called tech savvy, so if you run a gaming or technology site you will have a bigger problem than if you run a cooking or gardening page.

As more and more of us use ad blockers, the problem is going to get worse. A few days ago, I came across a direct response by a US television channel’s site to the use of ad blockers: it was not possible to watch a clip for an episode of a television series the channel shows if the site detected that an ad blocker was being used.

Sites for television channels feature pretty much the same amount of advertising as they do when broadcasting by conventional means. If they want to block users who reject these advertisements, they have every right to do so: we are talking about users who consume bandwidth, but who are undermining the sustainability of the channel. That said, some way round this will likely be found in the not-too distant future

Ad blocking is not about to go away. These are programs that anybody can install, and that even if sites try to get round them, there are always other navigators available. If, for example, Google decided that it was worried about people blocking ads on YouTube, and did not allow ad blockers on Chrome, users would simply turn to another navigator. This is a losing game. As use of ad blockers extends, all we will likely see is a kind of arms race.

The only sensible approach for advertisers and web sites to take is to avoid people installing ad blockers in the first place. And the best way to do that is to make it clear that they have signed up to a code of practice. Blocking the blocker, as the illustration above shows, will simply lead to the use of techniques to counter this, or perhaps to users not visiting a certain site. The simple fact of the matter is that there is now a sufficient number of people using ad blockers for advertisers and sites to address the issue.

Perhaps the time has come to start talking and listening to people who install ad blockers, and to try to understand why they do, rather than labeling them or attacking them head on.

(En español, aquí)