The ethical case for ad-blocking

The ad-blocking wars have been hotting up over the last few months – triggered in part by Apple’s integration of ad-blocking into the new version of iOS, the operating system for iPhones and iPads. Some of the commentary, particularly from those associated with the advertising industry, has been more than a touch hyperbolic. Seasoned internet-watchers will be very familiar with ‘such-and-such will break the internet’ stories: the number of things that we’ve been told will break the internet over the years is huge. It’s as familiar as the ‘such-and-such technology/practice will kill music’ stories that have been around since the advent of recording – from home-taping to file-sharing, music has died almost as often as Sean Bean in the movies. And yet music still lives. And thrives. As does the internet, despite all the things that should have killed it.

The latest idea is that ad-blockers will break the internet. A particular piece in The Verge has been very widely read and shared – which puts forward the entirely believable suggestion that Apple has included ad-blocking in iOS as part of its global war with Google and Facebook. The overall premise is highly convincing – and of course Apple will do whatever it can to ‘win’ against Google and Facebook, and of course this is an opportunity to make some ground. Both Google and Facebook do make their money (or most of it) from advertising, so restricting, controlling or blocking advertising could potentially reduce that income. And Apple is a business, and will be looking for opportunities that give it a commercial advantage over its rivals. So, however, are Google and Facebook – despite their efforts to portray themselves as providers of free and wonderful services to all, guardians and supporters of freedom of expression and so fundamental to the infrastructure of the internet that we love that any challenges to them (and their business models) are challenges to the internet itself.

Publishers and the advertising industry – and in particular bodies that ‘represent’ the advertising industry – are equally aggressive, suggesting that ad-blocking is ‘unethical’, ‘hypocritical’ or worse. They have pursued ad-block software providers in the courts in Europe – consistently losing, most recently in Germany last week, where the makers of AdblockPlus made their fourth successful defence against a legal challenge. The media onslaught has been extensive, and supported by many commentators. And yet Adblock software seems to be increasingly popular and successful, both on computers and on mobile.

Why is this? Is it because those who use ad-blocking software are unethical? Because they come from the ‘something for nothing’ culture? Because they don’t understand the economics of the internet, and so are blindly going down a route that can lead only to disaster? I don’t think so. The reverse: I think that users of ad-blocking software are taking a positive route both ethically and economically. If anything, it is by extending the use of adblocking software that the future of the internet is being secured, not the reverse. The more people that use adblockers, the better the future for the internet.

Why do I think this? Well, first of all, I look at some of the positives and negatives of the use of adblockers.

In favour of ad-blocking:

  1. Makes your screen clearer and makes it easier to find and read the content (particularly important on mobile)
  2. Makes the experience cleaner, clearer and less annoying
  3. Speeds up your connection – stops those processor-hungry video ads in particular
  4. Saves you money if you pay for data (which many people do)
  5. Reduces your chances of picking up malware
  6. Protects (to some degree) your privacy by stopping trackers and profilers
  7. Protects (to some degree) your privacy by stopping others (e.g. government agencies) from piggybacking on the trackers and profilers
  8. It’s your freedom of choice to put whatever software you like on your own equipment.

Against ad-blocking

  1. Disrupts the current advertising model that supports much of the free content on the internet
  2. Stops you receiving relevant and attractive ads tailored to your profile and behaviour

This second anti-ad-blocking point is a stretch to say the least, though it is one that the advertising industry likes to push. I am far from convinced. That then leaves only the first point, that using adblockers disrupts the advertising model. And it does, no question about it. It has the potential to disrupt it hugely, which is why the advertising industry and the publishers that are supported by it are in such turmoil.

The points in favour of ad-blocking, however, include some very strong ones. Fundamentally, and this is the point that the advertising industry seems very reluctant to admit, the current model is broken. Very badly broken, from the point of view of the user – and particularly the mobile user. The first four points are critical: speed of connection for mobile is a fundamental issue, most people pay for data, and the screens of even the biggest phones (I have an iPhone 6 plus) are small enough that advertisements often make pages all but impossible to read. One of my favourite newspapers, The Independent, was completely unreadable on my phone until I installed an ad-blocker.

The remaining points are more ‘niche’ – I am a privacy advocate, so the privacy points really matter to me, but I realise that not all people care as much as I do, even if I believe they should – but the first four are strong enough that the points against ad-blocking would need to be very compelling, and ultimately, to me at least, they are not. Indeed, precisely the opposite.

The current situation is unsustainable

Let me return to the main point against ad-blockers. They disrupt the current advertising model that underpins much of the ‘free’ internet. Two key words: disrupt and current. Privacy-invasive, processor-intensive, screen-filling advertising is very much the current system, not something that has always existed nor something that need always exist. To assume that a current model is a ‘required’ model, is a necessary model and will (and must) last forever is ridiculous in the face of the most cursory examination of history. Things change all the time – and sometimes that change is necessary. For many people (as the uptake of adblockers reveals) the change in the current advertising model is necessary right now.

The need for disruption

The question then is how the situation can change – and part of that is the need for disruption. Without disruption, nothing will change. That is where adblockers come in, and why the use of them is a positive ethical step. If we want change, we have to act in order to make that change happen. Without adblockers, would the advertising industry be willing to change their model? The evidence points strongly against that. Advertisements have become more intrusive, more processor-hungry, more screen-filling over recent months and years, not less so. The past record of the advertising industry is not one to be celebrated. Here are just a few examples:

  • They have pretty consistently fought against attempts to make advertising less intrusive, and supported the worst excesses of advertisers. Phorm, the creepiest and most privacy invasive of all, which thought it was OK to monitor peoples entire internet activity without consent, and even engaged in extensive secret trials without telling anyone, was supported directly by the industry bodies right until the end, when its model was ditched in the face of legal threats, EU action and being abandoned by its business partners.
  • The Do Not Track initiative – through which advertisers were intended to abide by user choices set out in their browsers – was so heavily undermined by the advertisers that it fell apart. Firstly they turned ‘do not track’ into ‘do not target’ – still tracking those who opted out, gathering data and profiling them, but not serving them with targeted ads. Then they refused to accept the idea that ‘not being tracked’ could be set as the default, saying that they would ignore that choice.
  • Google and others appear to have effectively side-stepped the do not track settings in the Safari browser, still tracking users though they had actively chosen not to be tracked: this is the backing to the Google vs Vidal-Hall case.

This is just a part of it – and does not even touch on the many other ethical issues connected to advertising. For advertisers to lecture others on ethics is more than a little hard to swallow.

How, then, can the advertising industry be persuaded to change its ways? The use of disruptive technology is one key tool. If the current dysfunctional situation is to be changed, and that would seem to many to be a good thing, then more use of that disruptive technology would seem to the necessary. Just as civil disobedience is sometimes critical to get social change, the same is true on the internet. It might be pushing it too far to say that we have a duty to use ad-blockers, but I don’t think it’s that much of a push.

There are some signs that some advertisers are taking the hint. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported last week that ‘Adblockers and Innovative Ad Companies are Working Together to Build a More Privacy-Friendly Web’ – and I hope that this is a sign of better things to come. Would the ad companies have taken this kind of step without the uptake of adblockers? I think it highly unlikely.

What is clear to me, however, is that we need a new economic model to replace the current broken one. I do not know what that model will be, but I am confident that it will emerge. The internet will not ‘break’, any more than the music industry will collapse. Our disruption is part of how that new model will be created and developed. We should not be cowed by the advertising industry, particularly on ethical grounds.

11 thoughts on “The ethical case for ad-blocking

  1. You make a number of great points, though I think the malware threat should’ve been emphasized a bit more. Maybe that’s my post to make. 😊

    It was a little weird seeing the WordPress ads for clickbait content at the bottom of this article, though.

    1. It’s interesting that different people have different objections to the current advertising model – for some of my privacy friends it’s the tracking that matters more than anything, for others (like you) it’s the malware, for yet more it’s the idea that we should be free to put whatever we want on our own devices. They’re all valid objections!

  2. It is true that new business models will have to be invented to help pay for the content. The monoclonal domination by the behavioural advertising model, relying on the frictionless collection of everyone’s personal online activity data, sucked away the oxygen from innovation on models to replace it. Hopefully the rise of the AdBlockers will force a change.

    But it is far from true that the Do Not Track project “fell apart”. Some civil society and academic members reduced their attendance, and some of the AdTech representatives left, but the core team, consisting of both pro-advertising and pro-privacy supporters, carried on. There is now a defined rich API that can be used by applications to give people control over data collection, based on the concept of explicit consent.

    Unfortunately this is entirely missing from the recent EFF “New DNT” initiative associated with third-party only restrictions and the “acceptable ads” program.

    The W3C standard has been has been minutely examined and debated by the many stakeholders, and has been effectively unchanged for almost a year. It is about to enter the final stage before becoming a W3C recommendation, following widespread public consultation.

    It is also untrue that it was turned into Do Not Target. It has always been Do Not Track i.e. the DNT header signal means do not use tracking techniques such as fingerprinting and persistent cookies. Do Not Target was the policy of the AdChoices “self-regulation” program which has now finally been debunked, not the work of the TPWG which as always been about tracking.

    The only contentious issues arose from the original mistaken agreement between some US civil society groups and the big Silicon Valley companies to limit protection to third-party servers (cross-domain tracking) which turned out to be a very confusing and difficult to pin down textually, and the original set of “permitted purposes” which would still enable tracking even when DNT was set. In my view these aspects will turn out to be unimportant anyway because the central motivation is to give people control over tracking, and it is obvious what that requires.

    Irrespective of these arguments we now have a final set of documents. The less-important “compliance” document may have weaker protection than those that exist under European Data Protection law, but actual law always overrides such a document and these are mainly theoretical anyway due to the regulators’ current failure to enforce. In any case, the technical document defines a protocol element whereby other protections can be declared by sites, and moves are afoot to codify a more European Law compliant version for this.

    There is now at last a real possibility of putting in place the legal and technical infrastructure needed to protect our freedom to use the web without fear of mass surveillance and commercial exploitation.

    1. Thanks Mike – sorry for the unfairness to Do Not Track, and I’m glad of the update. When I talked about ‘do not target’ I was more meaning that certain people within the advertising industry wanted it to become do not target. I’m also interested in your view of the current EFF initiative – I’m not at all sure how or whether it will really amount to very much.

  3. I do think a move away from the internet being paid for by advertising would be a Very Good Thing. Not necessarily just due to the reprehensible antics of some advertisers, but also because it has led to a generation of people believing that stuff should be free. I thing the prevalence of this mindset can lead to a devaluing of things which should have value, such as intellectual property.

    So if we can move more towards a model where if you want something, you pay for it, then I’d be in favour. (This said as somebody who objects to the Times paywall, however). So a reduction in the dominance of advertising as the engine of the internet would, in my view, be a move in the right direction. Any recommendations for a decent ad blocker?

  4. Paul, you mentioned Phorm, and described it as the most privacy invasive of all, monitoring peoples entire internet activity without consent, and engaging in extensive secret trials without telling anyone. Isn’t that what AVG has confessed to doing? From

    ‘Previous versions of AVG’s privacy policy stated it could collect data on “the words you search”, but didn’t make it clear that browser history data could also be collected and sold to third parties. In a statement AVG said it had updated its privacy policy to be more transparent about how it could collect and use customer data.’

    It could well be that AVG has been doing all along what its new policy more explicitly permits, under the legal cover of collecting data on “the words you search”. That would amount in practice to your entire internet activity, also without consent because it was in secret. The only difference may be that they now promise to partially anonymise your data before selling it, not disclosing how long they keep the un-anonymised version. They say they will allow you to opt out. Whether you believe that or not, it’s likely the great majority of computers with AVG Free installed are used by people who either do not know what AV is installed, or will not learn the contents of the new privacy policy.

    There was a great uproar about Phorm back in 2008. There was widespread fury but now the tone among commentators is actually approving, saying that AVG are doing us a favour for putting it in plain language, unlike those other naughty AV vendors. They are all doing it and we need their free versions so its not so bad. What a difference. A google search containing ‘phorm’ and ‘avg’ from the past month turns up nothing relevant.

    So how serious are we about privacy anyway?

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