Will Ad-Blocking Software Bring On A New Era Of Censorship?

By Martin Stockfleth Larsen | chief marketing officer

October 3, 2015 | 8 min read

Not too long ago, a friend of mine visited the website of her healthcare provider to look for a doctor. The next time she went on Facebook she saw an ad from a dentist that said, “Now taking patients with YOUR insurance.”

Incensed, she wrote an angry Facebook post decrying the lack of privacy in healthcare matters. Almost immediately her friends responded, asking why she didn’t just install AdBlock Plus, a free software that blocks all ads. Once installed, any site she visits will be free of advertising. For many consumers this seems like Nirvana, which is why so many of her friends also responded that they couldn’t wait to download the software as well.

How many times per day do such exchanges occur across Facebook, Twitter, email and in casual conversations around the water cooler? If you’re to believe the ad-blocking industry, the number is huge. According to a joint report by Adobe and PageFair, the rise in ad-blocking software is leading to a staggering loss of $22 billion in advertising revenue for publishers.

Why ad blocking ultimately hurts you, the consumer

As a consumer, you may have little sympathy for publishers who experience substantial revenue losses due to ad blocking, but you should. As anyone old enough to remember can tell you, prior to the Web staying in touch with friends, your favorite artists, and world events were expensive propositions. Want to know the latest game scores? Buy the paper. Catch up with your college friends? Place costly long distance phone calls. Forget about things like a real-time view of the Arab Spring. In fact, the Arab Spring may never have happened without a free Internet.

Why are these services we’ve come to rely on – Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Skype, Spotify, YouTube, IM, search, not to mention countless publications – threatened by ad blocking? It’s quite simple: every time you visit a page, the publisher or site owner seeks to “monetize it” (i.e. earn revenue) by selling an ad to an advertiser. Those ads allow the publisher to provide you with content and services you value deeply at little to no cost. Put another way, advertising democratizes this great experiment in knowledge sharing that we call the internet.

You may think that the Internet is ‘free,’ but it’s not. Someone needs to pay the writers, programmers, network managers, engineers, designers and myriad other resources who keep sites going. And that’s on top of the cost of buying the servers and routers, paying the electric and rent bills needed to keep a site that you like in operation. That’s where advertisers come in.

If you block ads from your browser, you prevent every publisher whose site you visit from earning any revenue. And that, in turn, threatens their ability to exist. When my friend installed ad-blocker software to punish Facebook, she also punishes every other site she visits going forward.

Can you afford to live without a free internet?

What will happen if a critical mass of people installs ad-blocking software? Numerous publishers will cease to exist, and those that do will charge hefty subscription fees for their content and apps. In turn, we’ll see a further stratification between rich and poor, since only the well-to-do will be able to pay for subscriptions for The New York Times AND Instagram AND Twitter AND [fill in the blanks with your favorite sites]. And, try to imagine how boring Facebook and Twitter would be if your friends still shared links for fascinating articles, but all the content was behind a pay wall and unavailable to you without a subscription.

On a broader scale, the Internet has truly made the world a smaller, and more peaceful, place. Going back to the Arab Spring example, would the Egyptian Army have been so quick to support the protesters if it weren’t for Twitter giving millions of people worldwide a real-time view of the events in Tahir Square? Another example is how President Obama made the fact that he had the smallest budget irrelevant by using new media to gain a significant campaign advantage. Across the globe, every day, environmentalists, artists, sports fans and entrepreneurs connect with likeminded people to provide aid to troubled regions, rescue animals, protest polluters, and make the world a better place. All of this good work is possible because of the free Internet, and the many services it offers.

Here’s the real kicker. The companies that create and distribute ad-blocking software are also creating and selling technology “that allows web publishers to determine if users are running blocking software — and then serves them ads anyway, going around the blockers.” So in a sense, these companies may say they’re helping consumers in that they are preventing you from seeing unwanted ads, but in reality, they’ve merely hijacked the transaction. They’ll still show you ads if an advertiser is willing to pay for it. Given that, are you still willing to put the internet at risk?

It’s our internet

Now you may say that as a person who works in the digital advertising field, I’m simply promoting my own interests, but that’s not the case. Due to my position, I work with publishers every day, and I’ve seen first-hand how much they rely on advertising revenue keep their operations going. In a very real sense, accessing their content for “free” (i.e. refusing to accept ads) is stealing. It’s not that different from running off on a restaurant bill or stealing from a local mom-and-pop store.

If anything, I’m more concerned as a private citizen, because I want to ensure that the Internet remains rich, varied and democratic. Service providers are willing to do that, but they need a means to stay afloat. At the same time, I’m not deaf to concerns like my friend’s. I agree that the industry as a whole needs to take more responsibility for creating ads that protect privacy, and actually enhance the user experience. That means ads that are more engaging, relevant to the consumer’s interests, and of course, a lot less ad clutter. If advertisers, publishers and consumers cooperate, we just may see a world where the ads we’re shown are highly useful to us, and if not for us personally, then for the greater good.

Everyone knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But blocking ads while accessing quality content day after day, year after year without ads is more than the occasional free sandwich; it’s equivalent to a free lunch PLUS payment (out of some unseen writer’s or network engineer’s wallet) on top.

The internet is not made for you, me or for the ad blockers, it’s made for us so lets keep it like that.

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