Ethical Adblocking

Apple just released iOS 9 yesterday, and with it allowed adblockers into the app store. Since the mobile web is increasingly a Big Deal, this fact heralds a sea change for the web.

An article about adblocking made the rounds a few weeks ago. Here’s a pullquote:

If blocking becomes widespread, the ad industry will be pushed to produce ads that are simpler, less invasive and far more transparent about the way they’re handling our data — or risk getting blocked forever if they fail.

That’s a load of manure.

A big part of the problem is how slow the ad industry itself has been to adapt. To this day most ads are still big squares (300×250) or giant skyscrapers (120×600). They’re not hi-DPI, they’re not responsive, and they’re usually ugly blinking GIFs. With all the technology we have available to us today, you’d think we’d be able to see better ads at this point.

Ads don’t offend me. Well some specific ads do, but the idea of exchanging my attention for a free service such as reading news on the web, that doesn’t offend me. I’m an adult, I can make an informed decision as to which services I will leave my data with, whether those services are free through ads or are entirely paid.

The problem creeped up on us slowly: the more attention you could sell, the more money you could get. Ads became bigger and more plentiful. First came popups, then they were blocked. Now we’re dealing with full take-over ads, interstitials, lightbox ads, and if you dare browse the mobile web, you’ll be looking through blinds in the form of social sharing links at the top, and “dismiss” buttons that don’t actually work. It’s pretty bad, and it makes browsing websites slower.

In the end, it only takes a few horrible ads to poison the well, and adblocking would eventually become inevitable. It’s like television, and Ghostery is the Tivo of the web. With iOS 9 content blockers, adblocking is going to be mainstream fast, and this is where the pullquote above falls apart: ad networks aren’t going to get better, probably the opposite.

Today it’s possible to make a living running a site that’s free to read, solely because of ad revenue. Some can even make a good living. As adblocking grows more widespread, ads are going to be more intrusive to get around this, more guerilla, and even bigger, all in a fight to make the same income off the dwindling flock that still aren’t blocking ads. It’ll happen to good people that run these sites. Despite their best intentions, their staff have families to feed, and if they just use this slightly larger ad and add an interstitial, things can stay the same for a while and no-one has to be fired.

It would be unfair to blame them. It’s human nature: millions and millions of sites aren’t suddenly going to see the light at the same time and change their ways all at once. Even if they did, it’s unlikely everyone would suddenly stop using adblockers because of this. Once the adblocker is installed, once web-ads have been poisoned by years of bad practices, ads aren’t coming back.

John Gruber tweets:

I feel your pain, John. It’s the same pain GigaOm felt when they died this year. It’s not pretty. And I like Deck ads. They’re nice. I agree they shouldn’t be blocked. But they’re still ads, and adblockers block ads. It’s not your fault, it was that monkey ad, remember? Shoulder to shoulder, we stand. Love is a battlefield.

There is no ethical adblocker which blocks only the bad ads and leaves the “good” ads. I’d like to feel like an activist fighting for pure content when I install Marco Arments $2.99 “Peace” ad blocker. I want to believe that by blocking ads, I help force positive change on the advertising companies (and the livelyhoods that depend on them), force them to adapt.

But that’s a beautiful illusion. What’s more likely is that web ads are going to get way worse, adblocking is going to go way up, and at some point in this arms race, after the death of many a media company, eventually some will indeed have adapted. The big question is whether you’ll like the alternatives. It can be apps. It can be inside Apple’s Newsstand (featuring unblockable ads). It can be inside Facebooks instant articles. It can be subversive native ads. It can be paywalls. Think in-app purchases: “Pay $1 for this article, or pay by watching a video.”

Nature will find a way. But we aren’t suddenly going to wake up to rainbows and unicorns. No matter how cool that would be.


A version of this post originally appeared on Google+. Yes, that ghost town you may have heard of. Bring chains and white blankets, let’s haunt things.