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.

So who’s breaking the internet this time?

I’m not sure how many times I’ve been told that the internet is under dire threat over the last few years. It sometimes seems as though there’s an apocalypse just around the corner pretty much all the time. Something’s going to ‘break’ the internet unless we do something about it right away. These last few weeks there seem to have been a particularly rich crop of apocalyptic warnings – Obama’s proposal about net neutrality yesterday being the most recent. The internet as we know it seems as though it’s always about to end.

Net neutrality will destroy us all…

If we are to believe the US cable companies, Obama’s proposals will pretty much break the internet, putting development back 20 years. How many of us remember what the internet was like in 1994? Conversely, many have been saying that if we don’t have net neutrality – and Obama’s proposals are pretty close to what most people I know would understand by net neutrality – then the cable companies will break the internet. It’s apocalypse one way, and apocalypse the other: no half measures here.

The cable companies are raising the spectre of government control of the net, something that has been a terror of internet freedom activists for a very long time – in our internet law courses we start by looking at John Perry Barlow’s 1996 ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, with its memorable opening:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” 

Another recent incarnation of this terror has been the formerly much hyped fear that the UN, through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was about to take over the internet, crushing our freedom and ending the Internet as we know it. Anyone with real experience of the way that UN bodies work would have realised this particular apocalypse had next-to-no chance of every coming into fruition, and last week that must have become clear to most of even the more paranoid of internet freedom fighters, as the ITU effectively resolved not to even try… Not that apocalypse, at least not now.

More dire warnings and apocalyptic worries have been circling about the notorious ‘right to be forgotten’ – either in its data protection reform version or in the Google Spain ruling back in May. The right to be forgotten, we were told, is the biggest threat to freedom of speech in the coming decade, and will change the internet as we know it. Another thing that’s going to break the internet. And yet, even though it’s now effectively in force in one particular way, there’s not much sign that the internet is broken yet…

The deep, dark, disturbing web…

At times we’re also told that a lack of privacy will break the net – or that privacy itself will break the net. Online behavioural advertisers have said that if they’re not allowed to track us, we’ll break the economic model that sustains the net, so the net itself will break. We need to let ourselves be tracked, profiled and targeted or the net itself will collapse.  The authorities seem to have a similar view – recent pronouncements by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe and new head of GCHQ Robert Hannigan are decidedly apocalyptic, trying to terrify us with the nightmares of what they seemingly interchangeably call the ‘dark’ web or the ‘deep’ web. Dark or deep, it’s designed to disturb and frighten us – and warn us that if we keep on using encryption, claiming anonymity or pseudonymity or, in practice, any kind of privacy, we’ll turn the internet into a paradise only for paedophiles, murderers, terrorists and criminals. It’s the end of the internet as we know it, once more.

And of course there’s the converse view – that mass surveillance and intrusion by the NSA, GCHQ etc, as revealed by Edward Snowden – is itself destroying the internet as we know it.

Money, money, money

Mind you, there are also dire threats from other directions. Internet freedom fighters have fought against things like SOPA, PIPA and ACTA – ways in which the ‘copyright lobby’ sought to gain even more control over the internet. Again, the arguments go both ways. The content industry suggest that uncontrolled piracy is breaking the net – while those who fought against SOPA etc think that the iron fist of copyright enforcement is doing the same. And for those that have read Zittrain’s ‘The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It’, it’s something else that’s breaking the net – ‘appliancization’ and ‘tethering’. To outrageously oversimplify, it’s the iPhone that’s breaking the net, turning it from a place of freedom and creativity into a place for consumerist sheep.

It’s the end of the internet as we know it…..

…or as we think we know it. We all have different visions of the internet, some historical, some pretty much entirely imaginary, most with elements of history and elements of wishful thinking. It’s easy to become nostalgic about what we imagine was some golden age, and fearful about the future, without taking a step back and wondering whether we’re really right. The internet was never a ‘wild west’ – and even the ‘wild west’ itself was mostly mythical – and ‘freedom of speech’ has never been as absolute as its most ardent advocates seem to believe. We’ve always had some control and some freedom – but the thing about the internet is that, in reality, it’s pretty robust. We, as an internet community, are stronger and more wilful than some of those who wish to control it might think. Attempts to rein it in often fail – either they’re opposed or they’re side-stepped, or they’re just absorbed into the new shape of the internet, because the internet is always changing, and we need to understand that. The internet as we know it is always ending – and the internet as we don’t know it is always beginning.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight for what we want – precisely the opposite. We should always do so. What it does mean is that we have to understand is that sometimes we will win, and sometimes we will lose. Sometimes it will be good that we win, sometimes it will be good when we lose. Whatever happens, we have to find a way – and we probably will.