Is it ethical to block adverts online?

Screenshot from Adblock Pro page A demo video for Adblock Plus highlights the pop-up-filled misery of some websites

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Blinking, beeping, auto-playing. Popping up, over, under. Tracking, intruding, unsettling. If the internet was a pretty face, advertising would be its wart.

Thankfully, if getting "a great six pack in weeks!" isn't your thing, you can simply flick a switch and use an adblocker - software that banishes the sight and hushes the din of irritating advertising all over the web.

The appeal is obvious, and millions have done it, but should you?

According to one count, 84% of the top 100 websites in the world rely on advertising to generate revenue, utilising the now long-established trade-off: use our website for free, but you need to look at some ads while you do it.

One site fights back...

OkCupid adblock banner

The above image was displayed to visitors to online dating site OkCupid who had an adblocking program switched on.

On traditional mediums such as TV and radio, advertising has over time developed into a form of entertainment itself - just ask the millions who tune in to the Superbowl without any interest in football.

But online, evidence suggests we're far less forgiving. Adblock Plus, the most popular adblocking program on the market, has been downloaded 250 million times, and has around 60 million active users.

"I guess everyone agrees that online ads are just plain annoying," says Till Faida, co-founder of Eyeo, the firm that owns and maintains Adblock Plus.

"They don't work for most people, and most consumers have turned their back on them."

Mainstream adoption

What's more, as firms scramble to monetise however they can, it's arguably getting worse.

"Advertising has become even more aggressive," says Sean Blanchfield, chief executive of Pagefair, a firm that monitors how often advertising is blocked on websites.

"Most people are installing adblocks because of video advertising. That's where the mainstream adoption is coming from."

Adblock Plus sees its "mission" as being to encourage advertisers, and the websites that carry their material, to rethink how those ads work - minimising discomfort for internet users.

"Right now we block all video ads," says Ben Williams, Adblock Plus's director of operations. "It isn't inconceivable that in the future there will be a better format, but don't see that coming right now, personally."

Mr Faida adds: "We want to move away from the same old blinking banners, and encourage the industry to develop better advertising formats that actually work with the consumers instead of trying to force something upon them."

Yet an increasing number of people are questioning whether Adblock Plus's software is unfairly using its powerful position not just to encourage better ads, but also to build a quite considerable revenue stream of its own.

'Like the mafia'

It's no spoiler to share that most publishers or advertisers have little time for Adblock Plus - and recently that annoyance has stepped up a notch.

Descriptions like "extortion", "protection racket" and "like the mafia" are all terms being voiced to describe the operation, says Mr Blanchfield.

"I can definitely confirm that that's what most publishers call it," he tells the BBC. "And I can see it from their point of view."

Start Quote

There could potentially be an issue of a conflict of interest”

End Quote Till Faida Eyeo, owner of Adblock Plus

The row centres around a more recent addition to Adblock Plus's business, first trialled in 2011 but now gathering pace now it is out of its beta phase.

Where initially Adblock Plus would block all advertising, it now operates using a whitelist - a collection of, so far, around 150 sites and services whose ads are allowed through the filter.

To get on this whitelist, the advertising has to meet several fairly strict criteria: no animations, don't get in the way of reading text, and don't take up more than a third of a page's width, plus various other things.

Sensible parameters on the face of it, but here's the bone of contention: for "big" companies that want to be on the whitelist, Adblock Plus demands they pay a fee.

"Large companies that significantly increase their profits," explains Mr Faida, "In return support us to make the initiative sustainable."

If that fee isn't paid, advertising is blocked, even if it fits the "acceptable" criteria.

Pay up, in other words, or Adblock Plus will knock-out some of your revenue.

'Stirring up controversy'

Such descriptions of Adblock Plus are unfair, argues Mr Williams.

"To describe it as extortion is absolutely imprecise and wrong," he says.

"I think that people call it that all the time in the hopes of stirring up a bit of controversy here and there.

'Acceptable ads'

The principles of "acceptable" advertising, as defined by Adblock Plus and its volunteer community:

  1. Acceptable Ads are not annoying.
  2. Acceptable Ads do not disrupt or distort page content.
  3. Acceptable Ads are transparent with us about being an ad.
  4. Acceptable Ads are effective without shouting at us.
  5. Acceptable Ads are appropriate to the site or tweet that we are on.

But Mr Faida says he can understand why some people may be concerned at that set-up.

"There could potentially be an issue of a conflict of interest," he concedes. "We're trying to counter that with maximum transparency."

But both men argue that far from working against advertisers, they are instead playing the role of the much needed intermediary, working with advertisers in a way that keeps internet users happy.

Around 10% of the companies on the whitelist pay for the privilege, Mr Williams says, and he lists Google, Amazon, Yahoo and Reddit as some of the company's "strategic partners".

They would not not be drawn on how much they charge, nor do they give up any details on which companies had refused to play ball.

"There are of course cases where people are looking at it from a simplistic point of view," Mr Faida says of those firms distancing themselves.


The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), a UK-based trade association for online and mobile advertisers, released a report earlier this year that hypothesised what it thought an advertising-free internet might look like.

The report argued that if some of the web's most popular services - excluding shopping - did not carry advertising, users would each need to pay around £44-a-month, on top of existing fees, to make up the revenue needed to keep those sites alive.

While the trade association has an obvious motivation behind stressing the importance of advertising, the report does at least highlight how integral that revenue stream is.

"As a trade body we support innovation in advertising technology," says Nick Stringer, director of operations at the IAB.

"But we don't support the blocking of ads per se, because it denies publishers the revenues they need."

Although often descending into a bitter war of words, both sides of the adblocking debate at least agree on one core issue.

"The advertising industry just wants advertising to be relevant," says Mr Stringer. "The more relevant it is to the consumer the more attractive it is to the advertiser, and it's more valuable to the web publisher."

But targeted advertising requires sophisticated techniques to track users and their browsing habits - a highly-contentious issue, to put it mildly.

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC


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  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    The reason I block ads has less to do with wanting to avoid the message, but the fact that many are resource-hogging and disruptive (animated and/or flashing away at the corner of my eye).

    Better is a 'bumper' where users are initially directed to a full-screen ad, and only allowed to pass to the desired website after a prescribed delay (a bit like having to watch adverts before the main event).

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    @ 216

    You're ignoring an important link in the chain.

    And how do advertisers get their money? They're paid by businesses. How do businesses get their money? They're paid by customers. How do businesses get customers? Advertising.

    So yes,

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    So a sites revenue is only gained from their adverts then? ;-/.

    Those sites that are the web front for a business don't use intrusive popups on other sites, and despite the hosting/creation costs is cheaper than a team of salesmen trekking to customers.

    Read down the comments on this and it's 10 -15% of posters who block adverts totally if that's indicative then it's a whole non issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    I also remember the Golden Age of the Internet. Capitalism came, popups and spam and the internet faded into a Silver Age. Then came more capitalism, Browsers warring incessantly, proselytizers and blog trolls, censorship and control, and an increasing thirst for the Internet to become the new oil. Thus, the Internet decayed into an Age of Brass. Surely there is a better way?

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    Now we just need to find a way of 'blocking' free newspaper vendors that block the entrances to railway stations, blocking people handing out leaflets about 'astrology' and 'palm reading' and blocking Jehova's Witnesses from coming to my door or trying to push leaflets and booklets into my hands outside Waterloo Rail Station... then we can life peacefully.

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    If there was a regulatory body for Internet adverts, maybe, MAYBE, i'd consider adverts themselves less unethical. Until then, all adverts can and shoudl be blocked.

    I think google has the right attitude to the *display* of adverts, ie as adwords rather than intrusive images and animations... except google has questionable practices when it comes to collecting information.

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    This article misses the point and I suspect it's deliberate to drive the story perceptive.

    Adverts are fine when they are part of the page your access and ad blockers do not stop them appearing - that is where the revenue stream is at its most effective.

    Pop-up ads are instrusive, often infected & extremely difficult to close.

    Confusing them is poor writing & muddies the ethical discussion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    Its a great pity that no-one yet has invented an ad-blocker to sit on top of TV
    ....................They would become millionaires overnight.......................

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    "Acceptable Ads are..." There is NO such thing as 'Acceptable Ads'. I am disgusted that AdBlock let any through. Targeted ads don't work, they just show me ads for stuff and websites I've already seen. Adverts should be targeted to the site they're on, but they wont do that because it would mean advertising competitors on your site.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    If people used their brains to filter out the propoganda offered by all media, they wouldn't need any adblockers.
    Self-awareness and Bhuddism comes to mind.

    They'd note the ad, patiently wait whilst it runs to the end or close it, ignore the content and move on.
    The internet ads would stop as retailers would find them useless.

    That's not going to happen though as we as consumers are mugs

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    Once upon a time websites showed real content then some bright spark decided to monetise the web with adverts that annoy everyone. If website owners want customers/viewers then they should have engaging content and think of other ways to pay for the website if their "product" doesn't sell in its own right. If this advertising wasn't available would those websites still publish, probably not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    Is it ethical for advertisers to have embedded HTML mouseover events in their adverts delivering malware to unwitting users' computers?

    Yes, I use an adblocker, and will continue to do so until the advertisers clean their own cage out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    Whats the difference between thieves and people who use the internet without watching advert?

    Nothing! :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    Many adverts are overly intrusive, horrible, loud, gaudy, annoying and entirely non-relevant.

    Fix that and I'll remove adblock. Until then, well, tough quite frankly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    I see somebody mentioned YouTube. I use it a lot but given that you get ads next to your video, ads embedded before your video, ads plastered over the top of videos, ads at the top of the website, YouTube partners whored at you from multiple sources and so on, I block. There has to be a happy medium, but Google seem to have no idea where that is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    I don't like adverts, but if it enables sites to be free then I am happy to have them as long as they only pop up on the side and do not require you to have to switch them off. I hate the aggressive ads that pop up and obscure the site itself.

  • Comment number 306.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    I find ads too intrusive sometimes. There are several issues
    a) it takes longer for the ads to load than the info. I'm after - which can result in the webpage freezing or extreme slowdown of my computer.
    b) ads that flash with moving imagery designed to distract my attention away from the info I'm after.
    c) the ads that move, covering the info I am after.
    d) ads with loud music.

  • rate this

    Comment number 304.

    Adblock's rules make sense.

    I doubt anyone minds something that doesn't take over their page/viewing and works like it does on Youtube: most you can ignore after a short while, they aren't there all the time and some you just ignore and go and have a rest from looking at a screen.

    So good luck to Mr Faida.

  • rate this

    Comment number 303.

    I hate all adds, I love to block all, Thank you add block :)
    I don't care if businesses will die, more will spring up. Do they really think that if you shout loud enough people will buy? really?? let the idiots sink, well dona add block


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