On the Ethics of Ad-Blocking

This article is brought to you by Tom Maddox.

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a fellow college alumnus wherein he asserted that ad-blocking is unethical on the grounds that it deprives content creators of revenue. The argument is a simple one, and not without merit: the content creators of the Web deserve to get paid for their work, and the primary channel by which they do so is advertising, so if you want your favorite news sites, comic artists, video entertainers, etc. to keep doing what they do, you should view (and presumably click on) the advertising on their sites so these creators are able to make money. Whatever content you view on the Web, someone took time to create it as well as the infrastructure to support you viewing it. Even a personal blog will have multiple people involved: the blogger, possibly a paid Web designer, certainly whoever wrote the blogging software, and the staff who support the underlying Web server. Depending on the blog, the blogger may not be directly paying for those resources, but they do exist, and eventually all those people need money to live and hopefully thrive on. With advertising as the lifeblood of the World Wide Web as we know it, can we really afford to block it?

Let’s take a step back and consider how we got here. In the halcyon pre-Web days, the Internet was largely free of advertising. Not completely, of course (I was shocked to discover that the first spam email was sent in 1978!), but in a text-based world, advertising was easier to detect and ignore, and we had these things called killfiles for individual message filtering or the Usenet Death Penalty (for those of you just joining us, Usenet is where Internet greybeards still hang out and remember what they like to believe was a more civilized time). At that time, the Internet was entirely supported by a mix of academic, government, and commercial interests, and the “content” was created by active participants engaged in a free exchange of ideas (with the caveat that not all ideas or participants were equally valuable).

With the advent of the World Wide Web, a shift began to occur. No longer was the Internet the sole province of nerds in computer labs; suddenly, the average person (who owned a computer and was able to access the Internet, so maybe not quite “average”) was able to view fancy graphical content at blazing fast 28k speeds. I still remember being amazed to see Web URLs appearing in car commercials! While a lot of that first content was advertising itself, it was fairly straightforward advertising: if you navigated to a car maker’s Web site, you expected to see materials about that manufacturer’s cars. Of course, it didn’t take long until the first banner ad appeared. By the standards of the time, banner ads could be quite obnoxious, but the beginning of the real challenge of Internet advertising came in a more subtle form: the tracking cookie. One of the biggest challenges of advertising has always been knowing exactly who saw an ad; tracking cookies not only allow advertisers to get that information, they allow advertisers (and any site with access to your browser’s cookies) to track every site you visit on the Internet. Before the 90s were out, Web-based advertising had gone from being a mere annoyance to being a pervasive threat to privacy, and most people had no idea. Over the past two decades, a sort of arms race has emerged, with advertisers using ever more intrusive tracking and ad media, while ad blockers have become a de facto privacy and security shield. At this point, the ad networks are collecting every conceivable piece of information about Internet users they can get their hands on by fair means or foul to assemble incredibly intimate demographic profiles which can be sold to advertisers and then shoving advertising through any avenue it can be delivered, while the ad blockers have to become ever more clever to prevent those actions.

The first Web ad blockers were primitive and mainly blocked ads themselves, which was a relatively simple programming feat because the ads themselves were simple. One common advertising tactic was the pop-up window, which saw a new browser window (or many) open on top of the one holding the actual Web page you came to visit, so pop-up blockers became standard features in Web browsers. Blocking in-page ads was pretty simple, too: the ad blockers just needed to prevent certain rectangular graphical elements from loading. Over time, advertising became more pervasive and harder to avoid or ignore. Beyond mere banner ads at the top of a page, we now have pop-overs, pop-unders, side banners, interstitials, auto-play video, and full-screen ads. Web designers seem to make deliberate choices to ensure that user preferences to disable autoplay video are ignored (I’ve found endless articles about disabling autoplay, and yet I still run across cases where videos will start playing unprompted), resulting in blaring sound, video running over other content, and possible undesired use of mobile data. It’s unreasonably difficult to block autoplay videos served as part of primary content (and by “unreasonably difficult,” I mean that there should be a readily-exposed control which reliably disables it), but at least ad blockers mostly spare us the grief of autoplaying advertisements.

The advertising industry might quibble with my descriptions of their actions, and I think their riposte would be that this is all simply the price we pay for Internet content. None of us is entitled to the content and services provided by the Internet, their argument would be, so if you don’t want to see advertising and have your personal information ruthlessly harvested, indiscriminately shared with all and sundry, and used to target you with either eerily precise or comically useless advertising then don’t use the Internet ! Simple! And they do have a point–how bad would your life be, really , without the Internet, at least the “free” parts? Put the phone down and go outside, son. I’ll meet you in the next paragraph.

Okay, if you’re still with me, here’s where the ad industry’s logic falls down. The industry has arranged the transactional process in a way that it, and only it, gets to determine what you are worth. It has become an oft-stated truism that, if you are not paying, you are the product. The more information about you that the advertising industry can gather, the more advertising you watch, and the more effective that advertising is, the more value you have to the industry. But here’s the rub: you don’t get to determine what a fair share of that value is. Information about you is constantly taken from you without anything that could reasonably be described as informed consent, and that information is tremendously valuable to advertisers, especially in aggregate. In a fair transaction, both sides know what is being exchanged, but the advertising industry has done as much as possible to obfuscate what they’re taking and how they’re using it, while continually gathering broader and deeper personal information. In fact, it has now been academically demonstrated that adware is technically indistinguishable from malware. Ad-blocking and other privacy-enabling tools tilt the balance of power back to you, the Internet user.

I plan to write more about the many sins of the advertising industry, but I think you get the idea. What about the content creators, though? Aren’t they caught in the middle of this conflict between advertisers and Internet users? Don’t they deserve compensation? As an Internet user who wants access to quality content without being constantly inundated with advertising, you have a number of options to ensure creators actually get paid for their efforts:

  1. Whitelist sites or apps that you frequently use, which will allow advertising to come through for them (I’ve included instructions for Blokada, since that’s who I’m writing for, but every ad blocker should have a similar feature).
  2. Pay for the content or app directly (shocking, I know!). Many apps and sites have a paid option or a donation button. Why not use it?
  3. Subscribe to content you like. Many news sites are moving to some form of paywall model, and micropayments have finally come into their own in the form of services like Patreon or Brave Rewards, so you can directly fund artists through single payments or subscriptions.

All of these options (and I’m sure there are more) allow creators and developers to get paid so that you can browse ad- and guilt-free!