A Longer than 140 Character Discussion on Ad Blocking

IOS 9 is now released and with it, Apple’s addition of the ability to install ad blockers into your mobile Safari browser. This has created a lot of discussion across the internet, including yours truly.

This is a complex issue with many good points on all sides. I resisted using an ad blocker for a long time, finally deciding to do so when it became clear how painful using most web sites had become and how much data was being collected and tracked on users.

And this is my beef. Not advertising; I get it that people who create content need to make money and pay the rent and feed their family. Where they’ve lost me is the sheer size and greed and impact of the advertising on my use of the net. When a web page is bloated from 1-2 megabytes to over 10, when accomodating the trackers of all of the systems attached into the advertising spreads information out across 25 or more sites — and the capture of that information is not disclosed, there’s no transparency on what it is or who has access to it, and there’s no opt-out opportunity (I won’t go into the idea that I ought to have been asked to opt in to this tracking), the greed and aggressiveness of the advertisers has passed the limit of my wilingness to put up with it to access the content.

This is not a cost-free thing, either. That bloat adds up; if I go over my data cap on my mobile plan, I hear the ca-ching of the cash register over at my carrier’s accounting office and $10 gets added to my monthly bill; this has become common when I’m out travelling, which I’m doing on a more regular basis this year and as more of my day to day activity shifts to my iPad and phone.

My choice is that I am now running ad blockers on my browsers and disabling some advertising and most trackers. I whitelist some of the trusted analytics systems like Omniture and Google Analytics and I’m going through and whitelisting sites (like Daring Fireball or The Loop, for instance) that use ad networks I feel are non-abusive (DF uses The Deck).

The common argument on the other side is that I should simply not visit sites rather than block ads. Some of those arguments go reductio ad absurdum quickly, such as those that equate my blocking ads with their ability to take a car without paying if they don’t like the price. In general, I have sympathy for this argument, but the reality is more complex and nuanced.

There are two aspects to why I don’t buy into the “just don’t use the site” argument:

  1. First, if the site feels I shouldn’t use the site with advertising disabled, they can block access to users that have ad blocking installed. This is happening in a few cases and if they choose that path I’ll honor it.
  2. Second and more important, I think it’s important for those sites to know I both want to use their content and I want to have a way to pay for it — just that their current environment is not acceptable to me.

I consider this a form of negotiation with these sites. If I simply stop visiting sites, they will never come up with alternatives that I can accept and remove the blocker for that site. Once I stop visiting a site, it’s unlikely I’ll ever be recaptured as a reader or customer. If that’s what they want, fine, and I admit that ad blocking is a bit of “negotiating via taser”, but then, I consider the activities of these ad networks abusive and less aggressive attempts to moderate their behavior (such as the “do not track” request) were widely ignored. If I am in a park and I’m attacked by an unleashed and angry dog, please don’t tell me I should have let it keep biting me until the owner could come by and calm it down. I’m going to kick it in the nuts until it stops biting..

Some people have argued that ad blockers are unethical, but I think trying to take an ethical high ground while defending the groups ahve have ignored “do not block” and invented things like SuperCookies and other persistant cookies that were designed to allow a user to be tracked weven when they were explicitly trying to not be? It’s up to everyone to make their own decisions, but these ethical arguments are uninteresting and unpersuasive to me.

There is a workable middle ground here: There are a few sites starting to display excerpts of articles, enough to make a rational reading decision on whether I want to see the entire thing; and then asking me to disable the ad blocking to see the entire piece. I’m all for wider adoption of this technique, and if the article is interesting to me, I will.

What I want on the larger scale, however, is for the advertising network industries to fix themselves. They’ve gotten bloated and arrogant, they’re sucking out way more information that I’m willing to voluntarily hand over and they’re acting entitled about accesssing that information. This is not going to be an easy or fast change, and I realize there are going to be casualties. I’m now at the point where I feel that’s a necessary collateral damage, because nicer attempts to say “hey, the interests and needs of the reader needs to be better balanced here” have been rather rudely ignored or rejected. So yeah, a bit of scorched earth is going to happen.

And that’s bad, but the status quo is also unacceptably bad, and if the advertising network industry had been less aggressive and greedy here, there were acceptable middle grounds available. Now, however, they’ve pushed it far enough that the only way back through that middle ground is going to be through some pain and suffering.

I know the publishing sites are caught in the middle here. Rene Ritchie at iMore has been very open about the complexity of this problem. But ultimately these sites have to take responsibility that these ad networks are their vendors and have to find a way to push the vendors to clean up their act, of find alternatives — one hope I have here is that there will be alternative vendors created that promise to solve these issues AND can scale to the needs of these publishers.

The ad networks need to realize they’ve pissed off too many users for too long, and these users now have the tools to gut the advertiser networks off the sites. they can go for scorched earth which will likely kill a lot of sites and ultimately many of these ad networks, or they can work for solutions that users live with (knowing, of course, that enough people are enougb pissed off now that they’ll happily just block everything, probably forever — a side effect of what happens when greedy people find the people they’ve been sucking on are given options that let them return the favor).

I hate forcing a conversation by taser, and running ad blockers feels very much like that. I also feel like I was left no choice, so I don’t have any qualms doing this. I use terms like abuse and entitlement and greed very carefully and thoughtfully here, and I hope the ad network vendors think about why the actions they’ve taken have left so many of us with those feelings about them.

I’m going to be curious how this all plays out. I expect it to be slow, painful for many and fatal for some sites, and that makes me sad nut won’t keep me from sleeping at night. And I, for one, am hoping it won’t be too long before I feel like I can turn the blocker off again — but not as long as doing so will slow down my page viewing times, litter my devices with tracking cookies and spread my usage info god knows where (because none of these trackers are transparent, disclose what they capture, who they distribute it to, or give me opt-out options).

The relationship between the reader of the web page, the publisher of the web page and the advertising vendors has to balance off the needs of all three against each other in a series of compromises. To date, the needs and interests of the reader have been ignored (because they could be), but this new blocker capability ends that and is going to force a change on this. Ultimately, the people who abused this balance for their own short term needs have only themselves to blame for this, too. This pain could have been avoided, but really, once it was decided to ignore the “do not track” options that were put out there, it was clear this fight was inevitable. And now it’s here.

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