I’m deep in a quandary. A couple of days ago, after calling Adblock Plus “the nuclear plug-in,” I actually went nuclear. I downloaded the sucker and started using it. I was seduced by Noam Cohen’s description of the almost Zenlike sense of peace that flowed through him when he’d outfitted Firefox with the ad-eating add-on:
What happens when the advertisements are wiped clean from a Web site? There is a contented feeling similar to what happens when you watch a recorded half-hour network TV show on DVD in 22 minutes, or when a blizzard hits Times Square and for a few hours, the streets are quiet and unhurried, until the plows come to clear away all that white space.
You have to admit: that sounds pretty nice. I wanted to get myself a little of that shantih. So I’m now using Adblock. To be honest, I actually went a little further than Cohen did. On the advice of some anonymous correspondent, I also pimped my browser with another plug-in, called CustomizeGoogle, which strips the ads from Google search results and other Google services – something Adblock isn’t so good at. (CustomizeGoogle, by the way, is really useful, even if you don’t turn on the ad-blocking feature.)
Now, I’ve never seen Times Square immediately after a snowfall, but I have to say that experiencing the web without ads – or at least with a whole lot fewer ads – is awfully pleasant. Imagine that somebody has been yelling into your ear for so long that it’s come to seem normal. Now imagine that the person suddenly shuts up. That’s the effect of ad-blocking. It’s like going back to the feel of the web in the early 90s, before it was strip-malled.
But along with the peacefulness comes a gnawing sense that I’m doing something wrong, that I’ve left the straight-and-narrow. Should I pay attention to that sense, or should I ignore it? Is ad-blocking immoral?
I’ve read what others say. Mark Evans speaks for many web publishers when he calls Adblock Plus “an evil predator.” He goes on: “If you believe in Web 2.0 and/or if you believe in the concept of free, Adblock is pure evil.”
There seem to be two different, if related, objections to ad blockers, one ethical, the other utilitarian. The ethical objection is that looking at a free web site while filtering out the accompanying ads is tantamount to stealing. In this view, the act of loading a site creates a moral obligation to load the ads as well. I don’t buy that at all. When a publisher or other supplier makes a decision to give something away free and to make money indirectly, by selling ads, the supplier and the advertiser are the ones who assume the risk that the ad will not reach its target. The reader or viewer never has an obligation to look at or to click on or even to load an advertisement. It’s completely discretionary. If I’m watching, say, Monday Night Football, and every time there’s a commercial break I run out of the room to either (a) grab a beer or (b) take a whiz, I am doing absolutely nothing wrong. The same goes for blocking Internet ads.
The utilitarian objection is that the continued provision of tons of free stuff on the web depends on the success of online advertising. Blocking ads, therefore, is self-defeating. You may get a little short-term pleasure, but in the long run you’ll end up sacrificing all the free goods. Cohen points to a post by Lauren Weinstein that sums up this objection well:
If we are unwilling to view Web ads, then many useful sites will undoubtedly move toward more direct ways to collect fees – or else close down operations entirely, leaving us all the poorer. If we don’t want ads, and we don’t want to pay directly for accessing most sites, there’s a serious dilemma afoot. Whether it’s for eradicating rats or providing Web sites, we have to pay the piper somehow. There may actually be a free lunch from time to time, but there isn’t really a free Internet.
The utilitarian objection strikes me as completely valid. But it’s not the whole story. There are also reasons, both ethical and utilitarian, for using ad blockers. Brian Boyko makes the case, for instance, that within companies blocking ads serves the useful function of conserving bandwidth, a valuable resource, and enhancing network security. Far from seeing Adblock as “pure evil,” he sees it as “an absolute blessing”:
First, from an enterprise network performance standpoint, there’s absolutely no downside to not just encouraging Adblock in the name of both bandwidth conservation and network security – but to actually make it mandatory. The most annoying ads – flash banners, pop-ups, etc. – are the ones that usually take up the most bandwidth and are more likely to have nasty malware payloads which cause more bandwidth and network security problems. Relying on end-user action to prevent network performance problems can be futile, but encouraging users to use less bandwidth by doing something that they’d probably like anyway will do nothing but help … So, if you’re looking at this from anything other than the narrow, rare, and absolutely wrong view that the ad peddler somehow “deserves” to have his product sold, and the content provider “deserves” to have advertising pay for his work, Adblock is an absolute blessing.
One could go further and point out that, by slowing down the loading of pages, ads force us to use our computers longer and hence consume more energy. Is that not a good reason to filter ads? And couldn’t it be argued that weakening the effectiveness of advertising could spur the creation of new business models that may in the long run bring more choices to both producers and customers? Is it so wrong to offer some resistance to the web’s emerging commercial monoculture?
More deeply, Adblock brings to the surface the tension that still exists between two very different conceptions of the web itself. There are many people who view the commercialization of the Internet as a tragedy. We forget today that for years most commercial uses of the Net were banned. People fought the introduction of advertisements in cyberspace in the same way that people fight the erection of billboards along the rim of the Grand Canyon. It was only after the arrival of the World Wide Web in 1991 that the anti-commercial regulations were dismantled and the ad flood loosed. I would suspect that many of the people who use adblockers are idealists who would like to return the Net to what they see as its proper, natural state. From their view, the use of adblockers must seem like an act of civil disobediance, a moral imperative, even.
So will I continue to use Adblock Plus? I’m afraid I will not. But that’s only because I would find it hard to write about the online world if I was seeing a different Net than most people see. I will disable the plug-in and return to the Vegas-style Net that I’m accustomed to. But I’m pretty sure that Jesus would use Adblock Plus.