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Sunday, 4 September 2011

AdBlock plus - morally wrong and as bad as piracy?

[Short link to this article if you need it: or retweet me]

Most of this was written a year ago and I've finally posted it. So I'll get straight to the point - I object to browser plugins such as Adblock Plus ... the web is free because it's sponsored by adverts. Taking a single minded selfish approach and blocking adverts on sites where you're not paying to view content that has been put together by other people is not only inconsiderate but since you're tearing away the author's revenue source it should be considered along the same lines as music/film/software piracy. And yes, I really do feel that strongly about it. Most people don't.

However, my opinion expressed in the introductory paragraph is purely related to unobtrusive adverts. There are several types of adverts where they really should be stopped:

  1. Flash adverts. They waste my computer's resources, don't work on all devices, and don't work if you have FlashBlock installed (I don't mind flashblock, it's not targetted intentionally at adverts). It'll be interesting to see how creative adverts get with HTML5 instead ... but for now, flash ones strike me as pointless. Feel free to block those.

  2. Anything that uses sound (which, as it happens, is usually the flash ones)

  3. Javascript 'popups' overlaying a page. These are seriously irritating. They don't pop up a new window (everyone blocks popups these days) but do it by dimming the background and putting a modal advert of some sort on the page via JavaScript. The most common example I come across are song lyric sites which use this to get you to buy ringtones - find one that doesn't and support it (I use azlyrics when possible, I don't think they copy from elsewhere ...)

  4. Placing an advert that CAN'T be removed over the top of part of an image or video. I've seen this before and it's the dumbest piece of advert placement I've ever seen. That sort of thing on 'official' streams will push people to using unofficial, illegal methods. Same argument which often makes pirated movies have better ease of use than DVDs (see earlier article on the DEBill)

So what does work? Things like GoogleAds in particular are relatively nonintrusive and don't take up much bandwidth to download (I have them on this blog), so for the good of the free nature of most of the internet, I'd rather you didn't use AdBlock or comparable technologies. And if you're in the business of producing ads, don't use any of the above methods to display them.

The article I recently posted regarding why I use (and pay for) We7 music streaming is a case in point. You can either use it free with adverts being played (and as I understand it you get issues if you use it with AdBlock) or you can pay a subscription from £5 and use it advert-free. It's up to you, but using it free without adverts isn't appropriate. (Although they do, unfortunately, use flash advertising)

The one related thing that I consider unforgivable, and isn't on the web, is things like what Sky satellite TV does in the UK where you have to pay a subscription and still get adverts during the broadcast. That's unfair, and I think it will start to cause them a problem with diminishing returns anyway as people use their Sky+ and other PVR technology to bypass ad breaks (even legitimately). With some of the official on-line streaming 'catch-up' services you don't get that option, but if the catch-up service is free, why should you be allowed to skip?

Cookie tracking is another related issue worth mentioning here. Images such as this one that picked up on an insurance quote I'd been given and the advert had the exact quotes in it were a bit disturbing. It can be done with the same tricks that cashback websites use - cookie stuffing - but with hindsight, why not? If you consider it objectively, if there was no advertising on the web and we were suddenly told "We're going to have ads, would you rather have targetted ones or generic ones" would you honestly pick generic? The only concern in this area is so-called "supercookies" which use techniques other than browser cookies to replicate themselves. For example, even if you clear all your browser cookies, flash may still have it's own ones associated with the sites you visit. Use this control panel (find it via right clicking a flash applet, Global Settings -> Website storage settings panel) to find out what flash cookies are stored on your machine.

Those are the facts. Do the right thing and remove AdBlock. Lesson over :-)


  1. Biggest problem for website users, and their owners is that ads can be used as a vector for malicious software and viruses. High profile sites such as NY Times have had issues (ref So for safer browsing I consider ad blocking as important as virus and spyware software on the desktop.

  2. I wholly agree with you. This is the Jeff Jarvis position, as I understand it, too. Of course sites need some kind of a revenue model. The reason that Google has been pretty successful in this space is because they haven't shoved ads in your face. I think this is a perfectly fair position.

    (no, I don't use AdBlock)

  3. I actually believe in the paid service model.

    Problem with Google Ads is that while they seem unobtrusive they are the solereason for 10,000,000 minisites. That and the fact that sites will deliberate model content to get clicks.

    Web supported Internet is (a) Bad for the Internet - lowering quality and (b) Bad for advertisers who are fighting for recognition in the cess pool of content.

    Paid services will yield higher quality AND better, more qualified, more rewarding ad services.

  4. Of course, *ads* don't pay for the websites, people buying things from companies that buy ads pay for the website.

    So, if people find the ads so intrusive that they block them, then the ads move someplace else where they aren't so intrusive (such as text based, interleaved with content), you could argue that it's the market at work.

    But that would violate the first principle of marketing: "You won't go broke underestimating people". So instead you end up with the savvy minority blocking irritating ads and rewarding (modestly) well-behaved ads, while the majority rewards the obnoxious advertisers.

    Now, this dynamic is orthogonal to the question of how to fund small, unpaid, websites, since the masses are perfectly happy to pay for a bad experience (by clicking on ads indiscriminately and subsequently giving something of value to the advertiser), but hey, it's the business model they chose, and others are available.