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The Ethics of Ad Blocking

April 30, 2013 Comments off

While a lot of people get a kick out of funny TV ads, I don’t know anyone who likes online advertisements. It’s not hard to see why, considering how many problems Web page ads have. They’ve gotten bad enough that, as with spam, people are resorting to using software to block ads. (If you’re one of the few people who didn’t already know that, I highly recommend that you look into Adblock Plus.)

Unfortunately, ads are also just about the number one way of making money off a Web site. That doesn’t just mean that they’re infuriatingly common, but also that a lot of good people depend on them. These site owners are, unsurprisingly, unhappy about ad blocking software, because it means they make less money. That may mean that they can’t afford to keep their sites up. Not everyone can manage a pure labor of love, after all, especially when there are domain name and hosting costs involved. I think it’s understandable that these people want others to avoid using blockers.

But when people lose me is when they act like there’s an obligation not to use ad blockers. Whether such an obligation exists is an interesting ethical question, but the answer is pretty simple: No.

Why Block Ads?

Let me start by elaborating on those problems I mentioned earlier—the reasons people are using ad blockers in the first place.

First, they’re generally annoying. Even the plain text ones can be bothersome, but all too often they play flashy animations, obnoxious sounds, or even full audio and video. Other times, ads are offensive, usually in the “sex sells” vein. Then there are usability issues caused by ads that break page layouts and cover up text, especially the newer ones that use CSS/Javascript wizardry to break out of their containing boxes and spread out all over the screen. Speaking of usability, the abundance of annoying ads—even just the plain old banner ads that don’t do much—has led to the phenomenon of banner blindness, an unconscious avoidance by Web users of anything that even looks like an ad. This doesn’t sound like a big deal until you realize that ads are training people to be unable to see blindingly obvious things, and it’s been shown that this effect isn’t limited to the Web. What could possibly go wrong? There are also the privacy concerns raised by advertisers’ obsession with using using online ads to track people. Finally, Web ads can be vectors for malware, as they’re usually Java, Flash, or Javascript applications whose content and behavior are outside the control of both the user and the site owner; other times their purpose is to trick people into downloading malware.

That last reason alone should be more than enough to sell you on the concept of ad blockers if you’re not already using one. Either way, that’s a pretty big pile of grievances. It’s pretty easy to see why people want to block ads.

Arguments Against Blocking

So why do people insist that we shouldn’t? I admit I’m not the most well-versed in these arguments, but I’ll try to list the ones I’ve heard and offer a reasonable rebuttal. I will try to remain as objective as possible, but be aware that much of what follows is just my opinion.

Free services depend on ads.

The first argument, and perhaps the most compelling on an emotional level, is that many sites and services depend on advertising revenue. This ranges from sites popular freemium servies like deviantART and Pandora (two examples I’ll be revisiting a few times in this post) that don’t get enough income from subscriptions alone, to tiny personal sites, blogs, and webcomics that use ads to offset hosting costs.

This seems to me, at least at first, like a non-sequitur. Sure, they’re depending on the revenue, but how exactly does that (by itself) translate to an obligation for the user?

Here’s how I assume the real argument goes: By blocking ads, you are depriving site operators of revenue that’s rightfully theirs. After all, they did their job by putting the ads in the page, but because you never actually loaded the ad, the ad broker never saw a hit, so the site owner didn’t get paid.

I agree that this is unfair. Again, the site operators held up their end of the bargain. I just don’t see how that’s my problem. It’s a problem with the pay-per-impression model: Instead of paying site owners for the ad space, and then using impressions to determine the value of that space, the ad brokers instead expect ad space for free and only pay for individual impressions. (The pay-per-click model is even worse, as I’ve mentioned before.)

And that brings me to an important point: I get the impression that many site owners think that they are entering into a transaction with users in which the site owner provides a service (either making/providing content or some other service, e.g. social networking) in exchange for the user providing a service (i.e. viewing ads), which the site owner resells to the ad brokers. That’s the wrong way of looking at it. It should be construed as the site owner providing a service (namely, displaying ads to users) to the ad brokers in exchange for money.

Let me be clear, though. I’m only addressing whether this creates an ethical (if not necessarily legal) obligation on the part of users. I’m not saying you shouldn’t disable your ad blocker on certain sites in order to support them. By all means, do that, as long as you think it’s safe.

You’re stealing an ad-free experience.

This argument applies to sites that remove ads in exchange for a subscription fee. The gist of it is that these sites charge money for an ad-free experience, and by using an ad blocker, you’re taking that without paying for it. You could quibble over whether that counts as stealing per se, since you’re not depriving someone of property but rather future revenue (and even that doesn’t necessarily hold up; see above), but in that case it’s unethical to the same extent that piracy of copyrighted works is unethical: It’s the unauthorized taking of something you don’t have the right to take.

This doesn’t hold up, in my estimation, because it’s not really taking something. The ad-free experience isn’t really a separate thing for users to take. They’re being given something, and then choosing which parts of it to consume.

Let me use an analogy: Suppose you go to the meat counter at your grocery store, and you are given the option of paying more for a nice hand-trimmed steak, or paying less for a steak with all the fat still attached. (I realize many people like the fat, so assume for the sake of argument that you don’t want the extra fat, or that there’s also a big hunk of gristle, or something. The point is, there’s extra stuff on the cheap steak that you don’t want to consume. If you’re a vegetarian, just use your imagination.) Let’s say you buy the cheaper steak and then, when you get it home, you trim off the undesirable parts and throw them out. Did you steal the lack of fat?

Clearly, you didn’t steal anything. You got what you wanted and more, and you got rid of the part you didn’t want.

You could argue that the analogy doesn’t hold, because in the ad blocking case, you’re getting something for free but in the steak example, you paid for it. I think it’s still the same basic idea, namely that you can pay a certain amount of money to have the parts you don’t want removed, regardless of whether or not that’s in addition to a base charge. If you disagree, then consider this: If the store was having a promotion in which it gave away free fatty steaks, no strings attached, but still charged for a neatly trimmed one, would you be stealing from them if you took the free steak and trimmed it yourself?

I admit that the analogy still isn’t perfect. After all, the butcher doesn’t benefit from your eating the fat the way a site owner benefits from your viewing ads, but that falls under the first argument I addressed.

I’d love to dig into the “unauthorized” part of the “unauthorized taking” argument, but that gets into legal issues (like whether modifying a page to remove ads creates a derivative work) that I’m not qualified to discuss.

By the way, one counterargument I won’t be making is that sites like deviantART and Pandora charge for more than just ad-free surfing/listening. DeviantART premium memberships and Pandora One subscriptions have quite a few additional features. However, this is not necessarily true across the board, so the anti-blocking argument could still apply to other sites that charge to remove ads. Besides, if “stealing” a premium membership is wrong, why would it be okay to steal part of one?

Terms of service forbid blocking.

Another argument against ad blocking is that, by blocking ads, you’re actually violating the terms of service of the Web site. I agree with this one completely. If you’re going to use a service, and the folks offering the service put conditions on it, then you have to accept those conditions. Otherwise, don’t use it. It’s not just good etiquette; it’s contract law.

To go back to the meat counter metaphor, if the store’s promotion is along the lines of “Pay us to trim your steak and we won’t charge you for the price of the meat,” then taking the free steak without having them trim it is stealing. (In fact, it’s stealing even if you don’t trim it yourself, but at that point the metaphor sort of breaks down.)

Having said that, not all Web sites—not even all sites that charge for ad-free surfing—actually require that their users disable their ad blockers. I mentioned deviantART and Pandora already as examples of a sites that charge for ad-free versions, but as it turns out, neither the deviantART terms of service  nor the Pandora terms of service mentions ad blocking at all. On the other hand, I can offer anecdotal evidence that Revision3 used to require users to disable ad blockers, and I distinctly remember doing so, though it appears they don’t have that requirement anymore.

As an aside, I think it would be interesting to see how this issue intersects with that of browse-wrap agreements (that is, terms you allegedly accept just by browsing a site). I don’t have the space or the expertise to go into it here, though.

A better alternative?

I think that covers, as well as I can cover it in this space, why I don’t think ad blocking is unethical. So where does that leave us?

If you’re a site owner who relies on ad revenue, you might be thinking the answer is, “high and dry.” And to some extent, I have to admit that I see trying to make money off your site as being an entrepreneur, and that means you have to accept the challenges that comes with running a business rather than thinking that people owe you a revenue stream. If your business model isn’t working, get a new one rather than assigning blame.

On the other hand, it’s important for everyone to remember that many valuable sites and services would disappear if they couldn’t support themselves—at least in part—with ad revenue. While that doesn’t necessarily boil down to an obligation, we should remember that neither do providers of free content or services have any obligation to keep giving stuff away for free. If we’re going to expect people to give things away out of the goodness of their hearts, then maybe we should disable our blockers for the same reason.

But that brings us back where we started: Bad Web ads have provided us with a big steaming pile of reasons to run ad blockers. If supporting a site means accepting a frustrating browsing experience, a barrage of offensive images or annoying sounds, or even opening myself up to malware, I’m not going to do it unless I have to—and even then I’d rather do without. I’m not the only one, as the existence of ad blockers in the first place attests.

The solution, if you ask me, is for all parties to give a little, so that all parties can gain something. Ad brokers should put in the extra effort of making sure their ads are well-behaved. Site owners should make sure they use only brokers that do a good job of vetting ads, and they should practice restraint in the number of ads they display. In return, users can put up with a few advertisements in the name of supporting site owners. In fact, steps are already being taken in this direction: Adblock Plus now defaults to allowing certain ads that are deemed “acceptable” and “non-intrusive.” Their research showed that three-fourths of Adblock Plus users would be willing to “accept some ads to help websites.”

If advertisements are done well, everyone benefits: Site owners and ad brokers make money, and users not only continue to get to use Web services for free, they might even learn about a product or service they actually want.

On the other hand, if site owners and ad brokers don’t put in the effort to show good ads, leaving those ads unblocked might not help them in the long run. Some research suggests that intrusive advertising techniques can cause users to “transfer their dislike [of the ad] to the advertisers behind the ad and to the website that exposed them to it.”

Choose wisely.

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Categories: Advertising

Really Terrible Joke

April 1, 2013 Comments off

I’m not a prankster, so in honor of April Fool’s Day, here’s a joke. Not a good joke, mind you, but a joke.

I invented a pot roast scented body wash. I plan to market it to astronomers, because they’re always looking for a meatier shower.
Categories: Uncategorized