The 'benevolent' ad blocker that shows digital media must evolve or die

Ex-Mozilla chief Brendan Eich yesterday (20 January) lifted the lid on his latest project Brave - a web browser that promises to give both consumers and publishers a fair deal by rooting out bad actors in the field, in a sign that the IAB's exclusion of AdBlock Plus was misguided at best.

The emergence of ad blocking in the mainstream of the digital industry was one of the key issues of 2015, and this year promises to see this momentum continue, with Eich's nascent browser working on the premise that the web 'needs fixing'.

In a blog post announcing the move Eich notes "Blockers can make the user experience of the Web much better... but they don’t feel good to many folks," in an acknowledgement that ad funding keeps most of the world's information available on the internet free-of-charge to consumers.

He goes on to state that if "enough people [are] blocking ads, the web’s main funding model is in jeopardy." He goes on to state how Brave is to build a solution designed to avert war and give internet users "the fair deal they deserve" while encouraging them to contribute to the value exchange between them and the content creator.

A web browser that blocks ads by default from the man who brought you FireFox

Brave's response is to develop a web browser that blocks all tracking technology, i.e. impression tracking pixels that fill the "programmatic advertising dirty pipe", with a view to preventing retargeted ads (and we all know how spooky they are) in particular.

This is likely to threaten the core business models of many third-party data providers, ad exchagnes, etc., and is a likely boon for those offering more closed trading environments, such as privatemarketplaces, etc. This will also spell good news for publishers, according to Eich.

But it also empowers publishers

Instead, Brave will inert ads based on a user's intent behaviour recorded by the browser, not on a persistent user ID or cookies, with Eich also telling TechCrunch that it won’t block all ads, with both native ads, and those using publishers' first party data also permitted through its net.

"Brave is the only approach to the web that puts users first in ownership and control of their browsing data by blocking trackers by default, with no exceptions," adds Eich.

The ethics of ad blocking

Debating the ethics of those inserting themselves into the value chain (i.e. blocking any type of ads) has gone on for years now, both in various law courts and industry events (where self-righteous histrionics from both sides are not uncommon).

Although, Brave's stated intent is to protect the user experience first and foremost (similar to how Mozilla's FireFox browser was set up to promote diversity) it is arguably open to the criticism of being a shake-down. But the option of offering a third-way seems a refreshing take on the entrenched political rants that have thus far dominated the ad blocking debate.

"Ad blockers may hope for better ads, but so far they seem to be having little effect. Publishers trying ad-blocker blockers may get a few local wins, but that path is an arms race. Brave brings innovation to bear across the whole web system," muses Eich.

Is un-inviting ad blockers from a debate principled, or as deluded as King Cnut?

This comes as the US Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) allegedly un-invited AdBlock Plus representatives from its annual leadership meeting that’s set to take place in California later this month, the details of which were publicly played out on Twitter.

The IAB last week sent an Adblock Plus employee earlier a note saying: “We are returning your registration fee and cancelling your registration for the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting.”

However, AdBlock Plus spokesman Ben Williams later wrote a blog post on the matter, including a screenshot of the email exchanges, which were later played out on the social network Twitter.

In the post, Williams said Adblock Plus had contacted IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg to ask him if he will reconsider the decision. “Sadly, if the leader of the largest advertiser trade organization does not have the cojones to allow dis-senting voices to be heard, then he does so at his own peril," read his post.

I've spoken with both parties on this side of the debate, and even been party to Rothenberg denouncing such ad blockers as terrorists - this is understandable given that the IAB is fundamentally a trade body for the publishing sector.

However, I can't help but think that excluding those behind a technology that has already gained traction, and growing, is reminiscent of the medieval King Cnut - who tried to command the ocean's waves from the shores of his Kingdom (as you'd expect, this wasn't terribly successful).

Plus when we think that mobile operators are starting to employ such technologies, it's apparent that some serious internal soul-searching is needed from the zealots who would rather eradicate such players.

That said, this is not the attitude taken by every chapter of the IAB, and the UK body has already engaged with AdBlock Plus to at least gauge its take on the entire debate, and with the upcoming AdBlock Plus 'Camp David' coming to the UK early in February, it will be interesting to see who's in attendance.

Ronan Shields

I cover digital media trading and martech for The Drum magazine, plus I write my own opinion pieces, I don't really commission them.

All by Ronan