Ethics of blocking ads - Part 3 · 2006-12-04 12:50 by Wladimir Palant

This article continues the discussion on ethical implications of ad blocking software. The first part and the second part were mostly dedicated to ads as a business model, now we want to look at the ads as part of the customer relationship.

When it comes to defending ads people often use the term “social contract” to describe the reason why we should download and view advertisements. This is some virtual contract that we supposedly sign by entering someone’s web site and that lets us view this site’s content. In exchange we view the ads and generate revenue for web site’s owner. Sounds fair and pretty similar to what is already happening (widely accepted) on TV. Yet the internet and TV are different and these differences are important.

What we should look at: does the web site owner hold up his end of the deal? Does he really allow us to view the content of his web site? Unfortunately, in today’s internet this is almost an exception rather than the rule. And I don’t talk about the sites with crappy content, if they don’t have anything to offer — you don’t need to go there. No, there are lots of sites that have content. Somewhere. You just have to find it. “Maybe if you click away this ad… And that one… No, that was wrong, now you have to close that pop-up window… Ah, there it is, right between two huge flashing ads!” And then, did you notice how difficult it is to read regular black-on-white text surrounded by several huge ads in flashy colors? Yes, they are intended to be distractive, getting your attention is important. And yes, animations are perfect for this job (thanks to Paul Battley for discovering that one). And sound. Are your eyes hurting, is your mind melting? Too bad for you but you certainly noticed the ads.

The difference to TV is obvious: when you watch TV you are allowed to watch it. There will be an interruption where you will be shown advertisements but rest of the time you are free to watch the program you chose. Now imagine that your favorite TV show would only be granted one half of the TV screen. And on the other half you would see advertisements, the kind of advertisements you already know — flashy, loud and greedy for your attention. Would you still enjoy it? And would it still be your favorite show?

Why is it that TV was able to find some acceptable balance between content and advertisements while the Internet couldn’t? First of all advertisements on TV are regulated by law (at least in some countries, I can’t be sure about all of course). There are some limitations imposed on the advertisers to make sure that regular people don’t come short. But I think that the most important factor is more direct feedback. If a TV station abuses advertising people will switch away to other channels. And there is enough competition to make sure that a channel cannot do it for long. “Switching away” on the internet on the other hand isn’t simply a matter of flipping through your channels. You will want to find a replacement which often means lots of searching. And even then you might not find a good alternative with very many sites on the Internet being unique in some way. As a result, “switching away” only works as a feedback mechanism for the sites that don’t attract too many users anyway. And the popular sites are free to do almost anything.

How can this situation be resolved? There have been initiatives suggesting that webmasters should restrict themselves, putting up less ads and maybe less intrusive ones. Unfortunately it is naive to believe that this could ever work. Even if you assume that every person is good and doesn’t want to cause others grief, it isn’t small websites driven by individuals that are setting the trend but rather large web sites that have a corporation behind them. And for corporations there is only one measure of success: profit. In terms of profit it doesn’t make sense to put less ads on a web page than the users can tolerate (which, as it comes out, is a lot). There is a certain optimal point where the ads are already numerous enough to produce lots of income but not yet annoying enough to make a significant percentage of users to leave the site and never come back. Every corporation is looking for this exact point, because if it happens to settle down on a point that is less optimal it will give other corporations a competitive advantage which is obviously bad.

I don’t think that anything based on self-restriction can be a solution for the long-term. In the end the feedback advertisers receive from the users should be made stronger so that abuse of advertisements becomes uneconomical. And the only kind of feedback I can think of is: users should have the choice not to watch ads if they don’t like to. Right, this means ad blocking software, things like Adblock Plus. You think that reading a certain site with all its ads is unacceptable? Then block the ads. If enough users do this then the sites overusing ads will actually earn less than the ones who are cautious not to annoy their users. And if I do a good job with Adblock Plus this will eventually happen.

So, if you own a web site and rely on ads for making money, what should you do? My advise is: don’t waste your time on tricking ad blocking software, do what is best for your users instead. Make sure nobody wants to block your advertisements. How this can be done:

Do this and you will have many happy users — and hopefully also lots of clicks on your advertisements.

Update (2009-06-18): Another analysis of this problem and more suggestions for responsible advertising: http://www.askdrax.com/2009/06/advertising-on-web.html

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Comment [17]

  1. Matt Nordhoff (Peng) · 2006-12-04 22:14 · #

    There is one problem: If a user installs Adblock Plus and selects one of the filtersets it suggests, they won’t see ANY ads, even text ads and still images that they wouldn’t really mind.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    Subscriptions only take care of major annoyances. Nobody forces you to use doubleclick.net.

  2. Matt Nordhoff (Peng) · 2006-12-04 22:14 · #

    Err, “not even”.

  3. ak · 2006-12-09 23:47 · #

    The realistic economics here is that a sufficient number of users must be willing to put up with aggressive advertisements, because they continue to visit sites that use them. You’re right that there aren’t always alternatives, but if the problem were bad enough, the market would create alternatives.

    I’m not willing to put up with aggressive ads, and I’ve found a solution in blocking them. Whether or not this hurts someone’s business doesn’t matter to me. A website may be required by its financiers to deliver ads — but I am in no way obligated to look at them, just as I am not obligated to stay in the living room during TV commercial breaks. Advertisers simply must (as they already do) take into account that not everyone who is delivered the ad will see it.

  4. BeHE · 2006-12-10 13:13 · #

    This is the exact reason why I always add pagead2.googlesyndication.com as an exclusion to my rule list.

  5. vinay · 2006-12-11 08:44 · #

    there should be option to block *.gif of size > 20kb

    this restricting size option should be incorporated in adblock software.
    (if size in kb is not known then size of pixels > 200×200 images could be banned.)

    and one get through for advertisers: they may check if ad is displayed on page, and only if its loaded, they may show the other contents..(using javascript) what do you do for that? then it becomes just like tv.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    The only problem – how do you check the size of an image you don’t download?

    As to the “protection” you mention – this one can only be used to scare away customers. So far I haven’t seen it on any site anybody would want to stay on anyways.

  6. vinay · 2006-12-11 11:01 · #

    options for image size is:
    1. check the headers for size of image that is being downloaded.(dont know much insight of gif headers)
    2. any downoad manager shows the size of file that is being downloaded. somehow that should be made use of. (also % of file that is downloaded)
    3. toher weak options also there..

    as for me i think “protection” will come one day.. we may be able to bypass even that by then ;). fact that we are ahead right now. cheers.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    That’s not how Adblock Plus works – it won’t even start downloading something it is blocking, there is no way you can get the size (regardless of whether in kilobytes or in pixels).

  7. vinay · 2006-12-11 11:25 · #

    dont invest time/resource to bolck images on basis of size – because

    soon they may grid images of small sizes to make a big banner. this idea can be implemented right now by them. should we block them one by one in adblock??

  8. rich · 2006-12-11 13:21 · #

    i want option to allow ads on some website “this time only”.

    so that i will know if adblock is blocking something useful. if i allow a website to show ads then its permanent. but i want to allow a website only once, later adblock may continue blocking ads on that website.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    This option is on the plans for Adblock Plus 0.8.

  9. Bob Jonkman · 2007-02-03 21:56 · #

    You mention that economics currently favour large, obnoxious ads (after all, if it weren’t economically viable then market forces would drive the customers away).

    However, there’s another economic force at work too — It may be more costly for the reader to apply Adblock software then to put up with the ads. “Costly” here is not measured in money, but measured in effort or knowledge to upgrade the reader’s computer (or the effort required to get the knowledge to upgrade the computer).

    That makes a good argument for bundling Adblock software right inside the browser — the cost of blocking obnoxious ads goes down, so advertisers need to create REALLY compelling ads so that people will WANT to view them.

    —Bob.

  10. bé · 2007-07-24 21:15 · #

    Maybe internet advertisers are unethical, but, on the other hand, AdBlocking in the current form is unethical as well. The ethical solution would be if the browser identified itself as “I block ads”, and then the content provider should decide if he wants to serve adblocking readers (taking away HIS resources from the ones that don’t block). There would be some who would, and some others would not serve. Then it’s a correct relation. Why am I, as content provider, forced to create free content for those who throw away ads? The TV sample is false because TV’s can’t directly measure. Newspapers can’t measure as well, but they don’t make ad-free editions. Why are online content producers supposed to provide ad-free editions?

  11. Adam Rezich · 2007-08-15 11:44 · #

    Wladimir Palant, every single word of this post mirrored my opinions EXACTLY. I fully appreciate everything you and the rest of the Adblock Plus team has done, and I too feel like it is our duty to stop these ultra-popular MySpaces and Heises of the Internet from thinking that they can do whatever they want, because people will come regardless.

    I currently leave my subscriptions set at default, but once I upgrade my rather old and poorly-performing computer in the very near future, I will do exactly what BeHE (Comment #4) said, and allow Google ads and maybe a few other ad providers. Not only is this courteous to the website owners who use these fine services, but it takes combating obnoxious advertising to a whole new level by providing these companies with business instead of the DoubleClicks and such. Maybe I should even start my own subscription or something…because causing a rift in the balance instead of simply alienating online advertising altogether could have a greater and deeper impact on shaping the market.

    I also have to say, I’m thrilled to see the number of people who share my “I don’t mind ads as long as they don’t visually rape me” attitude. It’s time we told the anti-Adblockers that unlike mp3 and warez pirates, we’re not partaking in this potentially illegal activity with the inherent intent of obtaining the benefits of using these mass-advertising websites for free — we’re already using them for free. While we are, in essence, “stealing” the (miniscule) revenue from their advertising partners, it’s because we care about the content that these websites are providing. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t block the advertisements to come and visit.

    Also, I find it truly awesome that the latest version of the EasyList subscription blocks the BODY tag of whyfirefoxisblocked.com, calling it “Firefox/ABP slander filter.” Truly amazing. (Which brings up another point; even though I agree with all of the goals and ideals of Adblock Plus, I find it unfair that people are placing the blame on the Mozilla Foundation. Maybe someone should port the Adblock Plus technology over to IE? ;)

    As a web developer, learning about the “Adblock Plus vs. Cheap, Ignorant Web Developers” war has taught me an invaluable lesson: don’t sacrifice your potentially large userbase for some spare change. The whole “Web 2.0” phenomenon is all about the users; if you disagree with this mentality, you are obsolete in today’s Internet.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    I like the last sentence, and I couldn’t agree more.

  12. moo · 2008-06-23 23:41 · #

    I enjoy Adblock Plus, and agree with some parts of your argument regarding ads, however your justification could use some reevaluation.

    The reality is these types of plugins will make it harder for small “one user sites” to stay afloat, let alone flourish (in the long run) since they aren’t pulling in cash from a corporate spinal tap.

  13. Michael · 2009-01-20 15:46 · #

    I have cable Internet, but am on a wireless network in a big house, so while my Internet should be fast, it is in fact frustratingly slow. It can take up to 20 or 30 seconds to just load the main Google page at times.

    Because of this, I cannot browse without Adblock Plus. Before I found that extension, I suffered horrendously slow loading times for most sites I visited. The Google text ads were the least offensive, but if something had lots of Flash advertising, I’d leave my computer to go do something else for a few minutes to let the page load.

    What made it all the more frustrating is that I have never once clicked on one of these advertisements purposely, with the intent of finding out more information or to buy their advertised product.

    I do the same for my occasional TV viewing – during the commercials, I mute the TV and go do something else for a few minutes. I do not let advertising tell me what I should want or need – I do my own research into things to find out what is coming out in the world of games, books, movies, or music. Advertising just annoys me and turns me away.

    On the matter of my getting free content from ad-driven sites – I am one of those people who supports the sites I really like. I visit a lot of sites from time to time, but the ones I really like I either donate to or buy merchandise from. I figure it’s the least I can do to help them out, since I’ve got whatever ads they might have blocked.

    Thus, I feel fully justified in blocking advertising. Oh, and my own site uses ads, but they are Google’s text ads, and I have Adblock Plus turned off for it, as I figure if I’m going to inflict them on anyone else, I should have to see them.

  14. adamzad · 2009-03-28 20:56 · #

    I think something that is being overlooked in all of this is the fact that the Internet is a public forum. In that sense, it is much like the Orange County Swap Meet. The consumer pays an admission fee (the subscription fee they pay to their ISP) and can then browse the booths (sites) in which various vendors display their wares.

    Let us not lose sight of the fact that any ads a vendor puts on his or her site are part of the site’s content just as much as the “content” that is intended to draw in visitors.

    When a consumer visits a booth (site), that visitor is under no obligation to view everything the vendor has on display. The vendor has every right to place those items on display (e.g., offer them to the visitor), but the visitor has no responsibility to look at those items, pick them up, examine them, or purchase them.

    A web designer/webmaster has only the right to offer my browser the ads; I have no obligation to accept them.

  15. Simon · 2010-08-25 15:17 · #

    I’m the author of some ad manager software (focusing on simple text / banner ads), aimed at small businesses. It’s not wildly popular, but is specifically blocked on the major adblock subscription lists.

    For the most part, I don’t see that as a problem, as I agree with what you’re trying to achieve (ie. responsible, useful, unobtrusive advertising).

    The only issue I have (bear in mind that I haven’t used adblock extensively) is that those who do practice responsible advertising seem to be treated the same as those who don’t, by adblock.

    Whilst I understand that everything is user-configurable, the major subscription lists seem to take the “block everything” approach, even if (for example) the website is a blog with four 125×125 ads in the sidebar. I would hazard a guess that the larger the user-base becomes, the less tech savvy they are likely to be and therefore the more likely they are to take the default / most convenient option (convention over configuration).

    I appreciate that automatically deciding what is “responsible” and what isn’t would not be easy, but I would simply ask, is adblock doing what it can to encourage responsible advertising over no advertising (for both end users and website owners)?

    At the end of the day, an end user should have the right to block whatever they want when viewing a web page, but ad blocking software can play an important role in making sure a blanket ban mentality isn’t the only option.

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    Yes, this is why I am working on Adblock Plus full-time now – so that I have time implement mechanisms that will encourage responsible advertising. There will be discussions on the particular approaches soon.

  16. Anonymous · 2010-08-31 03:38 · #

    This may come off as a “rude” question to some, but I like ABP the way it is. 0 ads. Some people disagree and call me evil for not wanting to see any ads, no matter how unobtrusive, but that’s just the way I like it. And today’s ABP gives me this. So I ask you, Mr. Palant, in the future versions of ABP, will I still easily be able to get the same 0-ads functionality (no ads or nag-screens to see ads — even if they’re “nice ads”) in today’s ABP?

    Reply from Wladimir Palant:

    Yes.

  17. Martin · 2010-11-06 17:43 · #

    I think it is unethical to use aggressive advertising techniques, such as sound and other methods previously highlighted (by previous commenters and these articles). It’s even more unethical to advertise products that can cause harm to the end user (via spyware or malware).

    However, if there was some sort of well recognised and fair standard that website creators/advertisers had to adhere to, then blocking those advertisements that meet those standards could (would?/should?) be unethical or illegal.
    This could also be extended into some sort of content eula, like a “I adhere to [blah] advertising standards, hence if you wish to view this content you must at disable adblocking or use adblocking software that endorses this standard”.

    Until something like this happens to protect me as an end user I will use adblock :) and argue that blocking all advertising is ethical.

    I am suprised no-one has brought up any IP discussion. If I choose to display content (as in a whole webpage) without providing permission for someone to modify it, they may be breaking my IP. Of course there would have to be an exception for the browser/system not having the support to display as whole.

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