Technology

Is it ethical to block adverts online?

  • 5 December 2013
  • From the section Technology
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Screenshot from Adblock Pro page
Image caption A demo video for Adblock Plus highlights the pop-up-filled misery of some websites

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.

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."

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.

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.

£44-a-month

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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