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Adblock Plus: what would Jesus do?

September 10, 2007

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."

Satan's plug-in?

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.

Comments

Disabling adblock plus? You are such a wuss nick :)

Now make sure you read every piece of junk mail you receive, and every billboard, and every commercial, etc. And be polite to that telemarketer. And so on.

Jeesh. Do you have any idea how high the quality of software/content would be if it actually had to survive on merits rather than click farms? It's only a matter of time before advetisers wise up to how they are being ripped off anyway...

Posted by: dubdub [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2007 06:33 PM

I like the DVR analogy, and I think that just like we're starting to see more product placements in tv shows, ads that are embedded into the content, we'll also begin to see more ads disguised as content.

Posted by: Greg Gershman [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2007 07:41 PM

Perhaps noting it is the corporatization of the Internet that many are concerned about and not necessarily advertising exclusively. Through Google adsense, there are many small to midsized websites which now have a revenue model and can continue to offer their writers a chance to keep their community afloat without charging people for bandwidth use etc. I would prefer to see contextual ads if it means that these groups keep publishing. I am not interested in seeing the barriers of entry emerge for web publishing so only those with certain connections, so to speak, see themselves published. Yes, traffic now equates revenue to some extent but we should also note that Google (number one search engine) weights its results via referencing. If people find your writing interesting/useful they link to you (reference your work). Very academic no? There are black hat SEOrs etc. but there is more democracy than spam on the Internet, in my opinion, and the web 2.0 economy supports this not hinders.

Posted by: jWalkr [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2007 07:42 PM

The irony of Mark Evans complaint is too delicious to ignore.

The Internet is free+ad rather than pay per view because people avoid payment even for content that costs money to produce. The Web 2.0 crowd claim that reluctance to pay is progressive and even revolutionary. Information wants to be free.

When the same motivation causes us to avoid paying attention to distracting ads, Mark Evans gets all moralistic about it. He wants to eat his cake and have it too.

If there's nothing immoral about "information
wants to be free" then there's nothing immoral about "information wants to be ad-free". Web 2.0 companies have no more claim on us than those newspapers who wanted to charge for access.

Posted by: tom s. [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2007 08:03 PM

I really like that first comment by dubdub. You know how many magazines i subscribe to and never look at one ad? Know how fast i flip a channel to watch anything else but an ad, while i'm waiting for my program to come back on. Screw advertisers who think they have a right to wave things in my face or force me to watch something else first before what i came for. Oh and by the way, Jesus was the only one with the balls to throw the money changers out of the temple.

Posted by: WORD-SMITH [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2007 08:11 PM

Most of my family's income comes from advertising on our web sites, so I definitely have a stake in this.

I have trouble seeing this as a moral issue at all. I have no problem with people using ad blockers, although their rise in popularity does concern me.

There are lots of options for publishers like me - for example, there are types of ads that can't be blocked - in-text ads, product placements, and interstitials. There are also ways of blocking content from people with ad blockers.

Unfortunately, I HATE all of those options. I don't want to make my ads more annoying. So I hope it takes a very long time for ad blockers to go mainstream. When they do, large publishers like me will probably switch to charging memberships, and small ones will switch to not making money at all.

It's not hard to place the blame here - I think it rests entirely on web publishers. They get greedy, run more and more obnoxious ads, and provide users with a very strong motivation to install ad blockers.

I don't use an ad blocker for one reason: I want to see my sites exactly like the public sees them. If my ads are annoying, I want to know about it and fix it. If more publishers were like me, things would be better---instead, webmasters are one of the biggest demographics for ad blockers.

Also, Mark's "pure evil" comment is breathtakingly absurd. If AdBlock Plus is the purest form of evil he has encountered, he must live a very sheltered life indeed.

Posted by: Michael Moncur [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2007 08:39 PM

One of the problems we're facing is that security concerns clearly involve our responsibility towards other people (zombified computers contaminating their neighbours). As such, Adblock but also noscript or local proxies like WebWasher and the likes are valuable if not essential tools when one's actions are driven by such an imperative.

Now, where one should draw the line when legitimate contents and malwares (or even ads) just reach user's computers following the same paths ? Two seemingly sound imperatives are conflicting (even though ad-free information sounds nice too). I guess security experts' take on this discussion would just lean on the other side, wouldn't it ;)

Furthermore, I don't agree with you when you say that people who use Adblock are idealists : maybe just individualists (libertarianism rings a bell ?).

Sometimes, to avoid getting malwares, it's necessary to block ads. After all, windows are good to watch the sky but prone to burglars' intrusions. Generally, it doesn't bring people to get rid of them : a house lacking windows is no longer a very funny dwelling place place indeed, and it's moreover a weird one, different from other people's (blocking scripts and ads out of security concerns soon becomes partly a hindrance too, far from the peaceful feeling you first experienced). Now, sometimes, you've got to chose. Even someone who is not against viewing ads while browsing could, over (maybe temporary) security concerns decide to get rid of them. As such, it has its drawbacks, but it's not plainly right or wrong, both motives (security concern v.s sustainability of Web if that's the only way - clearly a moot point) may be seen as sound ideals. Still, sometimes, depending on the context, and one's goals, you get to sacrifice one of them.

Now, a company's unequivocal decision to eradicate ads, on the other hand, seems wrong to me precisely because it departs from that individualist point of view I was advocating : not only because it is a decision supposedly applied not regarding people's consent, but because individualism here is a way to answer one's needs. Let's set it straight : we're all facing different imperatives, we have sometimes opposite goals, etc. and, thus, need to rely on fine, sometimes ambiguous, adaptive responses, not crude top-down imposed ones. (sorry for my English :) )

Posted by: aamonnz [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2007 09:21 PM

it's ok to use adblock. there are other ways to make money besides ads.

Posted by: cofoley [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2007 09:53 PM

Well, Jesus hung out with the prostitutes, so I think he would be fine with our friends in the ad industry...

Posted by: Mark Collier [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2007 10:08 PM

Two thoughts:
#1 - are the people that actually go through the trouble of installing the add-on actually going to click on ads in the first place? These people don't click ads.

#2 - depending on the ad service, advertisers might pay a rate based on visits or clicks per thousand visits, etc. So if people are disabling the ads, they are counted in the visits, but the clicks per thousand will likely be lower, depending on how many of that thousand have the ad blocker installed. Eventually, as this becomes a phenomenon to deal with, advertisers will realize that a 1,000 views doesn't do as well as it did previously (ah hem = television and DVR situation right now). The result? Advertisers find a different way to reach consumers.

When you dig into it, the really good content is provided by people that are getting something for it, whether it's money, prestige, notoriety, or something else. If content providers aren't rewarded with that thing they are looking for, they will stop doing it (unless they're just truly and genuinely benevolent with nothing but free time).

Posted by: Preston D K [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2007 11:56 PM

Works great. No more ads on your site.

Posted by: Ray Grieselhuber [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2007 12:45 AM

I was a little apprehensive when I first started reading you post but I ended up thanking you publicly for pointing out that not all blogs running ads do it out of greed or to piss off our readers

http://www.winextra.com/2007/09/11/a-big-thanks-to-nick-carr/

Posted by: Steven Hodson [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2007 01:21 AM

I have been an Adblock Plus user (and Firefox, naturally) for some time. I will probably continue to use Adblock, but I confess this post and thread has given me some food for thought. Ads are the lifeblood of many sites, and in many cases are quite informative as well (if they are well placed). I tend to use Linux now, so pop-ups and viruses are not much of a problem, but I am surprised no-one has mentioned the humble HOSTS file.

About a year ago I had a customer being plagued by Windows pop-up messages telling him he had a corrupted registry. He downloaded the recommended file and was infected with about 12 pieces of spyware.

In my attempts to clean his machine I discovered the benefits if a restrictive hosts file. This post and comments have prompted me to blog about the ability of a host file to block ads (selectively) and popups, virus delivery sites, etc.

My post (gratuitous advertisement follows) is at:

http://tinyurl.com/ytzot9

http://thepcuser.wordpress.com





Regards to all - Phil Stephens

Posted by: Phil Stephens [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2007 01:26 AM

Thank you, it is nice to see a more differentiated post from you, and I largely agree with it. What I don't agree with however, is the idea that ad blocking is going to eliminate advertising entirely. I summed up my points at http://adblockplus.org/blog/ads-dont-generate-money. Also, as far as I know the overwhelming majority of people blocking ads don't do this because of any ideological reasons - they do it because advertisers went too far attempting to grab people's attention. I can imagine that if the whole web would magically switch to text ads over night the stream of new Adblock Plus users would dry out.

Posted by: Wladimir Palant [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2007 03:12 AM

Just as a lot of Moveable Type powered blogs have Typekey, a common login for writing comments etc. I'd love to see a similar subscription scheme where people could view a number of websites for a reasonable monthly fee that removed advertising from them.

It would always be a niche market, because people mostly prefer things for free, but surely there must be enough people who would pay for a zen-like web experience?

Especially if the sites were - shall we say - from the 'upscale' end of the market where people are more likely to part with the aforementioned small fee.

Perhaps Italy's 'Slow Food' movement, could come to the web - who knows?

Posted by: Simon [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2007 03:41 AM

This discussion would be more interesting if there were real consumer choice in the marketplace; for most sites, I have no choice between an ad-free and ad-filled experience.

Some sites (Salon.com for example) remove ads if you pay an annual subscription. For those people who don't wish to subscribe, ads are visible. This is efficient.

I don't like ads and will pay my fair share to avoid them. But if you don't give me the option to pay, then I'll Adblock them every time.

Posted by: spirit [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2007 05:11 AM

"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."


I am not really a network person, so please forgive me if I miss something. But no one really owns the "net". Darpa was really a private sort of network(CSFNet) funded by the gov. Whatever natural state was there was theirs alone. After Darpa other private networks started sprouting and by open standards, it was easy to move from one network to another(even without passing thru a gov funded backbone as the article states) For example, if I click on a link for mycompany.com, I am routed to a private server owned by the MyCompany network. If MyCompany decides to add a webserver with pages full of ads, they don't really have to ask permission. The internet is really a smorgasborg of private networks. If these people want an ad free experience, they can setup their own private network and servers(like AOL). They can provide ad free email, blogging, search engine, ezines, online newspapers etc on their network, and pay for the bandwidth and hardware costs out of their own pockets. Or they can group with other networks and if they all agree, serve pages without ads.


But to use an adblocker on a decent, privately owned site with ads is like saying "I like your stuff(that may have cost you time and money to produce) and I'm using it for my benefit, I just dont want to pay for it not even by looking at or blocking your ads".

Someone should then make an AdBlocker blocker. If someone is detected with that plugin, redirect the user to a blank page. Because "Adblock does not owe advertisers a living"(according to Brian), the same can be said of content providers(who display ads) who don't owe users using those plugins any content or service?

"I have no choice between an ad-free and ad-filled experience. I don't like ads and will pay my fair share to avoid them. But if you don't give me the option to pay, then I'll Adblock them every time."


There is a choice. Don't visit or peruse a site with ads. If the site owner's "payment terms" is displaying ads and you are not comfortable with that, then it is hardly right(in my opinion) to bypass those terms (and not pay) via some mechanism and still use the site.



Just my humble opinion.

Posted by: Silas [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2007 06:59 AM

While one may debate which ads work on the web and which don't, ad-supported content is here to stay and we must consider Nick's view about the Pure, un-vegas like web as wishful thinking.

How shall we all be thankful for all that is free and good on the net?

Besides, it is kind of hypocritical of us adsense-blind types discussing something like adblock plus.

Posted by: Pramit [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2007 08:03 AM

I pre-ordered your book; does that get me a free pass on the text ads? How long before I should start viewing them again?

Posted by: Oliver Young [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2007 09:54 AM

"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."

Of course not. But what if 1/4 of the screen of the football show had an ad on it? They are choosing to interlace the TV ads between breaks because they figure it is still economically viable. But if they had the ad on the show itself, and you bought say...some kind of device to clear it from the screen? Is that wrong? In essence, the vast majority of web ads are really "ads on the show itself". Going back to the TV analogy, you are also letting the commercial break playout even if you are not watching. You know the ads are still there and you may even want to watch the next commercial. Adblock strikes me as using a filter to interfere with the TV signal itself, in order to make viewing commercial free or not let the commercials playout as intended by the network.

Posted by: Silas [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2007 02:09 PM

To be honest, the only ads I have truly objected to are those obnoxious in your face pop up ads, or the ever subtle pop under ads, or my personal favorite, the ads that glide across the screen while you're trying to read the page. Ads that are tastefully placed within the content and site shouldn't be blocked. I have AdBlock as well but I don't use it because I'm always wondering what I'm missing when I do.

And please, could we all stop wondering what Jesus would do, for f***'s sake? The better question should be, what would He have US do? :-P

Posted by: Lincoln [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2007 06:30 PM

Isn't there a delicious irony here?

Take Google, for example. The very company that made ads so successful the second time around (Web 2.0, or whatever you want to call it). They make most of their money serving ads to all these various websites.

Nevertheless, if you install Google Toolbar, it contains a pop up blocker! What are pop up blockers used for, 98% of the time? That's right. Blocking ads.

Do as I say, not as I do?

Posted by: JG [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 16, 2007 08:03 PM

Michael Moncur said it best when he said, "It's not hard to place the blame here - I think it rests entirely on web publishers. They get greedy, run more and more obnoxious ads, and provide users with a very strong motivation to install ad blockers."


I can tolerate the Google ads. They are small and mostly text. It's the pop-ups, the pop-unders, the plethora of flashing jumping moving ads that REALLY tick me off. The ones with sound REALLY REALLY tick me off.


If the web publishers kept their ads unobtrusive and a reasonable amount, then they would be kept at a tolerable level.


Add my two cents to the DVR analogy. Using an ad or pop-up blocker is no different than fast-forwarding through commercials on the DVR or walking out of the room during a live broadcast. Either way, the ad is not received by the target.


Granted, if the tv commercial was entertaining enough to be worth watching (Yogi Berra's ad for Aflac or Michael Waltrip's NAPA ads), then I would watch the ad. I don't know, however, how to make ads on the web interesting enough to want to view them. It appears that all attempts to make them interesting (flashing, jumping, moving, sound-enabled) just makes them more annoying and more worthy of being blocked -- just like TV ads for local used car, furniture, bedding, and appliance stores where the pitchman feels the need to yell at the viewer.


Not to go OT too much, but it has been said that the louder the commercial, the more stupid they think their customers are. That's why cheap/crooked used car dealer commercials always yell and why you never see a Mercedes-Benz commercial yelling.

Posted by: S the K [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 17, 2007 09:39 AM

Am I the only one here who views advertising as a semi-legitimate form of media? By blocking ads, you're blocking access to information. Probably more than 97% of ads out there don't interest me--but then again a high percentage of the news out there doesn't interest me.

Think of the moveon.org ad that is getting so much media coverage. Or any political or informational ad. Think of the advertisements you actually enjoy-- the funny ones.

I don't think the argument has to be all about whether blocking ads will put publishers out of business. Shouldn't we also talk about the services those ads deliver to us?

Posted by: Simon Owens [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 18, 2007 10:03 AM

I can't see blocking ads being immoral, because it's like you say, Nick: Nobody can blame you for getting up or switch channels when a TV commercial comes up, so why should I not have the same right on the Internet?

But:
I'd recommend using another free software over Adblock: Proxomitron. It's a local proxy that does not only filter out ads but also anything else you want it to. I have it set by default to block any active content (Javascript, ActiveX etc.) contained in a web page. From a security point of view this is fantastic and it can be disabled with one click, it has customizable exception lists etc. Plus it's usable with any browser not just one! Google for it!

Posted by: darkobserver [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 11:43 AM

If writers/designers want to make money from their work on the web they should charge for it. If no-one wants to pay, then they need to find another way of making money. Foisting often garish ads on the reader is, well, rude. Adblock is a moral imperative.

Posted by: imsuden [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 04:44 PM

The morality of blocking ads hmmm? Now, I'm not against capitalism - I practice it myself - but to make the right to profit from others a, uh, 'right '- a moral imperative - well, I don't know.

A more rational, holistic view might include consideration of the harm done by ads. Think of all those chumps clicking on ads and getting suckered into buying that 'miracle wok' for just $99.95. Maybe I'm off base on the wok thing...I haven't had to look at all the ads out there for years :-) Anyway, what about the natural resources being wasted due to too much advertising? Think of all that petroleum being turned into plastics. Or those trees into paper - or the microelectronic trash littering the world, leaking poisonous crap into the soil - because the effective lifespan of a gadget is reduced by ads for that new iPod Touch 'I just gotta have!'(Guilty as charged). Yada, yada, yada.

You guys need to be looking at something besides the ads...you know, get out more. Try watching 'Manufactured Landscapes' or 'The Corporation' and then consider how sustainable our free-market, capitalist model is.

If I was going to suggest morals I'd pick a different angle...but I won't since I am a self-confessed capitalist and that would be hypocritical. Death to Adblock Plus! Long live Adblock Plus!

Posted by: Asad Quraishi [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2007 09:45 PM

Detection of AdBlock:
http://showip.net/adblock.php
http://whyfirefoxisblocked.com/index1.php

AdBlock was updated recently to avoid detection, but it seems that didn't help much.

The idea of blocking users who don't look at ads is ridiculous (one would have to block all robots too)

Posted by: Sergey Schetinin [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 25, 2007 02:44 AM

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