Adblocking and its dangerous arguments – Part I

Adblocking companies are sprouting up across the digital landscape, all making similar promises of a “better Internet”. From the industry leaders like the original Adblock and it’s successor Adblock Plus, to established competitors like AdGuard and Ublock, the pitch is always the same: We are doing this for a better Internet.

But the unavoidable, uncomfortable truth is that the actions of these players are negatively impacting the ecosystem of the web. Many publishers and creators are already facing an existential crisis, and the problem continues to grow exponentially.

Whose fault is malware?

Many of the gripes of users who block ads are unquestionably legitimate (and serious).  Advertising-borne malware is a dire and persistent problem. What appear to be simple images on the margins of web pages can carry with them sophisticated program-code, exploiting software flaws to jump the confines of the browser sandbox and infect users’ computer systems. Once installed, malware can log keystrokes, report on private activity and destroy local data. These risks are real and in urgent need of a structural solution. But forcing publishers to bear the pain for the malware problem is counterproductive.

Leverage placed on publishers by way of “revenue denial” results in little upstream pressure on advertising networks and other giants of the Internet. Due to the sheer number of content sources, the nature of the relationship between publishers and advertisers, the relative scale between most publishers and large advertising markets, and the complexity of the ad-tech ecosystem publishers often have limited ability to apply pressure and affect change along the advertising supply chain. While publishers may be the public face of the web, a vast and complex root-network of ad-tech stretches far beneath the visible surface.  From deep within this subsurface ecosystem which reaches well beyond the influence of content creators, come the thousands of cumulative bad-decisions that result in the proliferation of malware.

root system

The problem of malware arises from an extremely broad set of failures — including flaws in operating systems, browsers, plugins like Flash and holes in javascript itself. It’s 2016 and we still haven’t completely sandboxed javascript or solved the problem of cross-site scripting. Flash, Java and other plugins are ongoing disasters from a security perspective. Operating systems continue to struggle to find a balance between ever expanding functionality and the inherent risks that their increased complexity brings. Many browsers are still riddled with flaws, and while some companies like Google have taken commendable strides by offering lucrative rewards to “bounty hunters” in search of security flaws — other companies like Apple and Microsoft both bear multiple black marks for their failures to quickly address published exploits.

Understanding the broad systemic roots of the malware problem, and the sheer size of the players involved makes it clear that publishers are the unfortunate, “easy” target of public wrath and in a hopelessly poor position to turn and dictate demands to the giants of the technology industry. When ad blockers deprive publishers of revenues, publishers are increasingly at the mercy of larger players — rather than in an empowered position to demand that advertisers clean up their act.

The resulting scenario is a deeply unhealthy business landscape for journalism and ad-supported media in general — as well as a convenient pretense for opportunistic adblocking companies to justify fleecing creators. As publishers’ profits continue to be decimated by adblocking, their ability to successfully fend off the demands of advertisers are reduced. It’s one thing to expect publishers to responsibly limit advertiser requests in the name of public interest, but it’s quite another to expect them to bite the hand that feeds them when their survival is increasingly at stake.

 

Adblocking companies pretend to be the “good guys”

If you listen to multi-million dollar companies like Eyeo — creator of the popular Adblock Plus plugin — you might start believing that adblocking is purely a public response to these security issues.

Not only do multiple purpose-built tools exist to protect users against malware and tracking — those tools do a better job of protecting privacy than many popular ad blockers. When Adblock Plus for example, allows major tracking companies like Criteo to pay their way past filters, the “security” justification for adblocking must be taken with a rather large grain of salt.

 

used car salesman

Meanwhile Ghostery, PrivacyBadger, Disconnect and other (actual) privacy-protecting plugins whose primary purpose is to prevent tracking, enjoy little time in the spotlight. These privacy-specific plugins don’t extract a pound of flesh from publishers, or practice shady protection rackets like Adblock Plus’ “Acceptable Ads” program.

Why are they never discussed? Because unfortunately for publishers and privacy-plugins alike, ad blocking companies are devastatingly adept on the PR front.

Not only have ad blocking companies managed to convince users that their primary motivation is the public’s best interest, but they have done a remarkably effective job portraying themselves as the only privacy option on the table. We are consistently presented with a false dichotomy: Block ads, or accept risks to security.

To hear it from ad blockers, no other options to protect against privacy or malware seem to be available. But the public relations assault doesn’t stop there. While on one hand Adblock Plus rakes in millions of dollars for whitelisting ad-tech companies whose primary business is tracking and re-targeting, on the other hand its PR wizards pretend to be agents of positive social change by spinning carefully-crafted programs like the “Acceptable Ads Manifesto” (note the reference) and even redirecting a portion of skimmed profits to Amnesty International in the name of “free speech”.

adblock pus amnesty ad

Spin. Spin. Spin.

(Yes, a plugin capable of blocking content, page elements and social sharing buttons while selectively whitelisting a handful of insiders who pay under the table … is donating to free speech. Hats off to Eyeo’s PR spin-doctors. You guys are good.)

Two weeks ago the reality-distortion field hit ridiculous new levels when Adblock Plus announced a partnership with Flattr — a venture launched by the creators of the infamous Pirate Bay file-sharing portal. The new partnership (dubbed “Flattr Plus“) is supposedly out to “help creators generate revenue for their works”. Amazingly, when the founders of these two companies who themselves have caused billions of dollars of combined previous damage to creators made their launch-announcement, the public actually applauded them for their socially conscious steps towards a “sustainable” media ecosystem. (!)

Never mind the billions in lost revenues that Adblock Plus alone has caused to creators, or the fact that over the past 6 years Flattr has already proven itself to be less than effective in generating publisher revenues —  these two agents of profound unsustainability are somehow expected to produce sustainability when combined. Amazing.

Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau summed up this unholy marriage with a single tweet:

“Desperate ad-blockers team up with illegal content thieves: Adblock Plus announces payment tool for content”

 

The rise of the walled garden

The weakened state of publishers is now leading them into the false sanctuaries of the Internet’s “walled gardens”: Facebook, Apple News and others. These non-public media distribution platforms promise consistent revenues but exert powerful influence over content visibility — and of course, add one more hand to the cookie jar of publishing revenues.

 

walled-garden-image

The rise of Facebook as a news delivery platform is particularly ironic for anyone interested in user “privacy”.  The often heard claims that ‘ads violate reader privacy’ pass the point of absurdity when said claims come from users of Facebook who have already voluntarily parted with their privacy in exchange for access to the site.

Blocking ads and thereby destroying free, ad-supported media under the name of “privacy protection”, while simultaneously continuing to use Facebook and other social media platforms is clearly contradictory and patently self-defeating. Even with Adblock installed, users of social networks and many news aggregators are being tracked and their data sold off.

This vicious cycle of denying publisher ad-revenue, while simultaneously empowering the walled-gardens of Internet mega-corporations is a dangerous recipe for destroying the power of the fourth estate. But somehow publishers who fight this trend with anti-adblock solutions like BlockAdblock are cast as “bad actors”.

Privacy fanatic “activist” Alexander Hanff recently went to war against embattled European publishers attempting to protect their revenue and independence. To date, he seems to be capturing the ears of EU commissioners (or so he claims) despite his misrepresentation of technology. It’s sadly ironic that actions of supposedly “populist” activists ultimately deprive thousands of independent publishers of their vital revenue and force them into the hands of a few Internet giants.

Hanff and his supporters should be careful what they wish for. As I have tweeted far too many times already: You can’t have democracy without independent media, and you can’t have independent media without independent commercial viability. 

As for that ‘commercial viability’ – these same activists are quick to cite a few alternative business models that are ‘sure to work’ if only publishers would just give them a try… but I’ll get to that next time.

…This post is already getting too long so I’ll pick it up in Part II where I’ll point out the problems with so-called “alternative models”…

Thanks for reading.

  • SignsOfTorment

    > “You can’t have democracy without independent media, and you can’t have independent media without independent commercial viability. ”

    You could have all newspapers paid for by the government. Why can’t that work?

    • Senechal2

      LOL. What could go wrong?

    • So long as the government funding is divorced of any control over content, it can work. And it does work for BBC in Britain and CPB (which funds much of PBS and NPR) in the United States.

  • Good Charlotte

    Sorry, but webmasters deserve 100% of the blame. They choose to use Google ADsense on their pages. ADsense carries the tracking and the malware. They don’t have to use ADsense. They can just sell ads to companies themselves. The problem is they are LAZY. They want to just get free money for doing what? Blogging? I’m sorry but get a real job.

  • Adam

    Adblock may not be “good guys” but it’s sure as hell better to side with them than to expose yourself to the horror that is online advertising. Until advertisers and publishers universally get their shit together, nothing will improve and that is NOT consumers’ fault.

    Just a few months ago I was browsing on mobile (meaning ads…), and I came across a banner advert from a big company (Ubisoft) that could not be closed, and didn’t even do a good job of keeping up with my scrolling of the screen. Incredibly annoying.

    So I quickly searched “mobile adblock” and discovered the wonderful “Adblock Browser” which works like a charm, and now I can browse even on mobile without having to see a single ad.

    If that terrible advert hadn’t shown up, I would not be blocking ads on mobile, only on PC. But now I block ads 100% of the time and I fail to see how somehow I’m a villain.

    • Miranda Blaaaaaaaaake

      “I dump commercial waste in the ocean, and hey it’s still clean man. The water still looks blue outside my window. What’s the problem?”

      • Adam

        Laughably bad analogy. If you don’t dump waste into the ocean, nothing bad will happen so you don’t need to do it.

        If you don’t use Adblock… Well you’re in for a BAD time.

        • Monar Davesh

          Actually, you’re in for a bad time with ad block. But the ecosystem hasn’t collapsed yet. Why are you insisting on a pay-walled Internet?

          • Adam

            The ad system is awful and would collapse by itself anyway. At least this way I get to enjoy an ad-free experience before that happens.

  • Hjulle

    So you are saying that people who do not want ads should not be on the internet (or anywhere else for that matter)? I want to support content providers, but I utterly hate ads. Flattr+ seems like a viable compromise to me.

    • Miranda Blaaaaaaaaake

      Yeah but how many people like you are there? Internet donations have been around for a while. They make nothing compared to ads. Most people are going to install Adblock and Flattrplus and give a couple bucks a month at best. They’ll think they’re “doing their part” and meanwhile they’ll be destroying the web.

      • Hjulle

        Then the sites or someone else needs to say how much in donations is needed for it to be sustainable. I believe most people want to be honest and make up for what they cost. If they “believe that they’re doing their part” and it’s not enough (even less than you make in ads), then someone has failed critically at information spreading.

        Two of the main reasons that internet donations doesn’t work are that people don’t bother and that they don’t know how much to donate. Both of which are at least partially mitigated by flattrplus.

        Besides, who says that “a few bucks a month” is not enough? According to http://adage.com/article/digital/worth-facebook-google/293042/, the most valuable user is worth $37/year to Facebook, which rounds to pretty much “a few bucks a month”.

        Ok, reading further, Google apparently makes about $200 per person, so $20/month is probably a more accurate figure if you want to compensate the web for the lost ad revenue. This is still something most people could afford.

        Anyways, it’s a hell of a lot better to pay a few bucks per month than just using adblock and not paying anything. Just give people some hard numbers on how much they cost and people won’t do the mistake you mention.

        • Hjulle

          Also, you can’t view ads as magical money making wizards. The money come from somewhere. The companies who are paying for the ads believe that you will buy their product. If you do not, you have basically “stolen” from that company, to pay for the ad sponsored product.

          If you can’t afford to pay for the product directly, then you probably can’t afford the product that is supposed to make up for:

          1. The “free” ad sponsored product
          2. The price of producing the ad
          3. The product itself

          So those people are a waste of money for the companies anyways.

          But that doesn’t really matter, which is why F2P works. The net cost per extra person is very small, all that matter is that those who pay makes up for the fixed costs (and the relatively tiny dynamical costs).

          Sorry for the stream-of-consciousness rambling. I hope it made some sense anyways.

          • Adam

            These people never seem to mention THAT – how the ad system is a waste of money for the advertising companies. Especially if you get people who use adblock, to not use adblock. These people will NEVER click on ads, but the company still has to pay ad revenue just for the “views”. This is a waste of that company’s money and is unfair to them.

          • Monar Davesh

            That’s not how it works.

          • Adam

            That’s EXACTLY how it works. You pro-ad weirdos constantly remind us “you don’t need to click for the revenue to be generated, you just have to count as a view”.

            So by asking adblockers (an audience that will NOT click on ads because they don’t even want to see any at all) to disable adblock, you are conning the advertising companies out of their money. All for a quick buck.

            But no, somehow it’s us adblockers that are selfish. You people are funny. I’m glad most people are waking up and embracing adblock.

  • Filan

    I think the websites are to blame though for the Malware, Its their job to make sure the ads being displayed are clean. Sure they come from an ad network but the front end to the customer is not “Ad Delivery Company” its for example “The New York Times”

    the website owners need to put pressure on adnetworks to run clean operations and eliminate intrusive ads. When an ad is displayed it should not be video, animated, or making noise.

    • Monar Davesh

      Can you tell me how you would put pressure on Google?

      • Piersonrife

        Request adds from somewhere else.

  • Hank West

    Some interesting points, but instead of the ‘block’ or ‘nag’ screen simply saying “that’s ok, who doesn’t?” and then (in the case of the block screen) actually forcing them to disable their blocker it to see the website, how about suggesting a better alternative, such as Ghostery?
    This would help increase much needed publicity for Ghostery, PrivacyBadger, etc.

    • Because publishers don’t want to do the extra work to make their ads compatible with these privacy extensions.

      I don’t use an ad blocker. I use a Flash blocker and Firefox’s Tracking Protection. The latter of these behaves the same as Disconnect. Yet WIRED’s anti-ad-blocking technology is too dumb to distinguish Disconnect from ad blockers, and in fact, WIRED admits as much.

  • Nostger Grrrssddc

    Adblock are the “good guys” and you are the “bad guys”, objectively.

    Here’s how it works:

    Users had a problem. (Horrible ads.)

    Adblock came along and offered a solution (Block _all_ ads.)

    You come along and try to prevent the solution.

    Simple really: solve a problem => “good guys”; intentionally _reintroduce_ a problem => “bad guys”.

    I agree that there are shades of grey here, but you don’t get to be a “good guy” by making problems for people.