It’s a question worth debating: Should you install ad-blocking software for your favorite browser? The answer depends on some practical considerations — like how much ads slow down your browser or how often they make it impossible to see the content you’re trying to access — but also on some ethical questions — like how you feel about consuming advertising-free content on the websites of publishers who are primarily supported by ads.
Farhad Manjoo reports for The New York Times that while advertising sustains the content we enjoy on the web, “ads and the vast, hidden, data-sucking machinery that they depend on to track and profile you are routinely the most terrible thing about the Internet.” A growing number of Internet users choose to escape “the daily bombardment of online advertising” by installing an ad blocker, which is a simple and free piece of software that blocks not only ads, but also some tracking technology. In the process, ad-blocking software generally makes your browser run more quickly, with less bandwidth wasted on loading ads.
While ad-blocking technology has been around for years, the recent uptick in adoption has spurred a debate about the ethics of its use, with some advertisers and publishers arguing that the software violates the basic contract that in exchange for free content, users put up with ads (no matter how numerous or invasive). According to a study released recently by PageFair and Adobe, adoption of ad-blocking software has grown significantly in the past year. Ad-blocking grew by 41% globally in the past 12 months, and there are now 198 million active adblock users around the world. Use of ad-blocking software grew by 48% in the United States, where there were 45 million active users as of June. The study projects that ad-blocking will cost advertisers nearly $22 billion in 2015 alone.
It bears noting that PageFair provides a service “that helps over 3,000 websites measure and recover revenue lost due to ad block,” and Sean Blanchfield writes in the study that his company’s patent-pending technologies “finally solve the ad block problem.” The company’s technology enables publishers to determine if users are running ad blocking software, and then serve them ads anyway. That sounds questionable. But Manjoo reports that ad blockers and even strategies like PageFair’s could “end up saving the ad industry from its worst excesses.” If ad-blocking becomes widespread — as it’s expected to do, especially once iOS 9 introduces support for ad blockers — the advertising industry could be forced to develop ads that are less invasive, more transparent about the way they handle users’ data, and don’t block the content that users are trying to see.
Manjoo reports that PageFair is just one of the companies trying to create an ecosystem that leads to better ads. Ghostery reports to publishers which trackers are slowing down their pages, so that they can improve how they serve ads. The founders of AdBlock Plus created an initiative called Acceptable Ads to set a standard for ads that the software will let users see even when ad-blocking is turned on. Ben Williams, a spokesman for Eyeo, the company behind Adblock Plus, told the Times, “What we need is a sea change in the industry to get to a place where we have a good amount of better ads out there, ads that users accept.”
But it may not only be the ads at issue, as users’ unease with the extensive tracking and targeting that goes with them also factors in to their decisions to block ads. Secret Media, another company that enables publishers to monetize ad-blocked traffic, explains that while people choose to use ad-blocking software for different reasons, many users’ motivations “seem to fall within the broad trend of fear of private data use.”
The firm explains, “There is a confusion between being exposed to advertisement, seeing ads that are targeting users using historical data (which websites are visited, etc.), having private data collected for marketing purpose (name, address, age, etc.) and having private data collected for national security purpose.” While it’s true that ad-blocking software can, to some extent, prevent the tracking and gathering of private data, Secret characterizes that benefit as “an edge effect [rather] than the original purpose,” and one that “can be easily bypassed.”
For many users, turning to ad-blocking software represents a compromise. Many consider such tools a necessary protection against excessive tracking, lurking malware, and bandwidth-intensive advertising. Some use ad blockers to enable a form of compromise, keeping them turned on on unfamiliar sites but whitelisting their favorite publishers. Whitelisting your favorite sites, or finding other ways to support them, while blocking ads on sites that are made unsafe or unusable by extensive advertising, may be the most reasonable way to deal with the problem of invasive ads and privacy-threatening trackers.
As parties on various sides of the ad-blocking debate all push for better ads, Manjoo notes that ad-blocking has so far proven an effective form of protest, one that forces publishers and advertisers to think about how they can create safer, more palatable ads. Ultimately, improving ads, not blocking them, should be the endgame. A free and sustainable Internet depends on advertising, so unless we’re all prepared to support our favorite websites and publishers in other ways, deleting ads from all of our favorite web pages is, at best, a temporary fix. We can only hope that the publishers whose pages are unusable without ad-blocking software will learn from the popularity of ad-blocking software that their visitors are demanding a better user experience — one that, if designed correctly, doesn’t necessarily have to leave advertising and ad-supported content out of the picture.