Ad blocking: is this the end of the free internet?
The brains behind ad blocking technology believe it is a basic right for every citizen to protect themselves from certain threats online and decide what to see as a consumer. However, this raises an issue for publishers which cannot be understated, as advertising is the main if not sole source of revenue for many publishers.
The problem is so prominent that if ad blocking continues to be used at the rate it is now, with 9 million adopters in the UK alone, either companies relying on advertising will shut down, or it will be put back on consumers to pay for the chunk of revenue ad blocking has blown.
That is the view of Martin Ashplant, digital director at Metro, who declared war on ad blocking at an APDAC conference this week, which saw industry experts gather to discuss the scale of the issue.
“There is a war in convincing users not to use ad blockers”, Ashplant said.
Ad blocking is no new issue, argued Christian Dommers, head of business development at AdBlock Plus Approach. It’s a problem that started happening in 2002 when online advertising started to develop. Ad blockers were first developed in 2006 and had 40 million users by 2011.
The expense therefore has been on publishers for quite some time, said Dommers, when asked why it is ok for AdBlock to make money at the expense of the publishers.
“We came up with a solution for consumers and are helping people to solve a business problem. It is therefore totally ok to charge for this because we are giving value,” he added.
Dommers admitted “I see ad blocking as a threat to publishers” and added cutting revenue for publishers was not what the inventor of AdBlock Plus wanted. It’s why the anti-ad tech company is working on a compromise - ‘acceptable ads’ - which will be shown to users by default.
These whitelisted ads are chosen by a community of users, and now the company is opening that choice to the industry, to decide what criteria an acceptable ad should fulfil.
Isn’t what users want no ads at all?
“Users are willing to see ads if they have value - proven by the really low opt out rate of whitelisted ads. We know advertising is not bad if it adds value, which is why we are working on this compromise,” said Dommers.
Dommers was keen to assure attendees of the legality of the ad blocking technology. “There is a consensus between the judges that what users do and what we do with software is perfectly legal,” he added.
Since ad blockers are legal and showing no sign of relenting, perhaps the only solution is for the industry to work with ad blockers to better regulate advertising standards. Dommers said at AdBlock Plus: “we don’t want to be a regulatory institution”. Rather envisions itself as a “middle man” between the consumer and brand.
AdBlock Plus claim they are inviting all the industry to work in collaboration to solve the ad problem. AdBlock Plus is a company are not strictly against advertising” and are looking a “delivering a compromise" by attempting to show ad blocker users that some advertising is necessary, he said.
The chief executive of the IAB, Guy Phillipson, was not so rosey: “The motivation of ad blockers is not to block bad ads, it’s to block all ads.”
Phillipson, who heads up the trade body that represents the interests of those hit worst by ad blocking, did not “shut the doors” to working with AdBlock Plus, but showed no immediate interest to allowing such an organisation to affect the regulation of the industry, which has “strong regulation already in place”.
Piers North, strategy director at Trinity Mirror, shared a similar indifference for the tech company: "They are not crusaders trying to make the world a better place, they are a commercial business out to make money, and not being transparent about it."
Instead of levying back charge to brands, has AdBlock Plus considered running as a not-for-profit?
“We have considered that but no one is willing to pay for it. The next step is paid-for content models and working with other companies in a subscription model. We would rather go in that direction that asking users to pay for software,” revealed Dommers.
Charging readers for online content is the model much of the industry is moving to in order to stay afloat in a deadly publishing world, the rise of which has been accelerated by ad blocking and the disastrous effects it has on publisher revenue.
Which raises the question: is this the end of the free internet?!