EAVI recently attended conferences at the European Parliament to discuss ‘Diversity in Media and Culture versus Convergence‘ and ‘An Alternative Media Landscape for Europe.’
Amongst discussion of disturbing trends; the concentration of media ownership in Europe and government interference on press freedoms in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, there was also much talk about what can be done in the new media landscape to maintain independent journalism, given that the old economic models for publishers are failing in the face of the upheavals brought about by the internet.
This made us consider the subject of ad blocking. What effects does it have on publishers and journalists? Are there any ethical questions to consider when using an ad blocker? What about privacy? What are the alternatives?
What follows is a (hopefully) simple rundown of the things internet users should consider when making a decision whether or not to use an ad blocker.
Besides being an annoying wall between you and a pleasurable internet browsing experience, it can be particularly worrying when browsing the internet to see just how much your online activities are being tracked as we are constantly fed ads directed at our personal interests. However, if you wish to insulate yourself against a relentless barrage of advertising whilst browsing the web then there is the option to add an extension like Ad Block Plus to your browser application. Extensions like this effectively block all ads from appearing on sites like Google, Facebook, YouTube and publishers like Buzzfeed and the New York Times.
It is important to note that when you load a web page the ads wrestling against the content for your attention are not actually a part of that page, rather they are usually stored on a third party server which delivers them to the platform. This way they can monitor the effectiveness of the ads they are serving, meaning they are gathering as much user data as possible in order to serve the most relevant advertising to you, the viewer.
In addition to blocking ads, most ad blocking software claims to also block ad servers from tracking you, which is a welcome privacy feature, especially considering that ad servers in the past, including Google’s own Doubleclick, have been known to serve users malware.
Another concern is that, although ad blocking applications on mobile have yet to make as large an impact as those on desktop and laptop devices, more recently ad blocking browsers have been introduced on mobile technology which, in addition to blocking ads, also minimize users’ mobile data use as well as speeding up page loading times.
As you can see on the chart below, oftentimes advertising costs the user more in data than editorial content.
You may well argue, “if using an ad blocker removes obtrusive ads, increases privacy and saves your precious data, then how could that possibly be a bad thing?”
As it turns out, ad blocking’s detractors have some compelling arguments.
Opponents of ad blocking argue that ad blocking contributes to the death of independent media by removing the only model of revenue available for internet publishers to maintain their sites and pay wages. Publishers, embattled by the shift in emphasis from print and television to digital news making and storytelling, have yet to find sufficient replacement revenue models to maintain their businesses. As ad blocking continues to gain in popularity, publishers continue to lose advertising revenue and therefore the resources they need to pay for quality, independent journalism, which, as was argued at the aforementioned conferences we attended, is necessary for an informed populace and for democracy to thrive.
A recent study conducted by Pagefair and Adobe showed that there are close to 200 million internet users worldwide with an ad blocker installed and the figure is actually highest in Europe with 77 million. Of European countries, Greece has the highest rate of ad blocking in the region at 37% of users.
As ad blocking grew by 41% in the last year to account for over $20 billion in lost revenue in 2015, Pagefair predicts that this may rise to over $40 billion in 2016. So our apparent enthusiasm for blocking ads is beginning to match our enthusiasm for viewing great content, which arguably cannot exist without the ads.
Many detractors of ad blocking also argue that by viewing online content, users are entering into an ‘implied moral contract’ with the publisher; that by agreeing to view the content, you are also agreeing to view the advertising that pays for it.
Conversely, critics of this argument suggest that this implies that anyone reading a newspaper or watching television is morally obliged not to skim over ads or make a cup of tea when their favorite program cuts to a commercial break.
On his blog, Marco Arment, the co-founder of Tumblr and creator of Instapaper, points us again to the issue of privacy, reminding us that “web ads run software on our computers that retrieve data about us and sends it back to advertisers, creating a detailed picture of who we are …All of that tracking and data collection is done without your knowledge, and — critically — without your consent.” Later though, Arment removed his own creation, ad blocking application, Peace, from the App Store citing a crisis of conscience: “I’ve learned over the last few crazy days that I don’t feel good making one
Here is where it gets more complicated
Adblock Plus, with Reddit’s support, have created the Acceptable Ads Manifesto (shown below) to give advertisers a guideline on the kind of ads they view as being acceptable enough to be ‘whitelisted’ and pass through AdBlock’s filters.
The idea behind the Acceptable Ads Manifesto is to improve advertising for internet users by encouraging advertisers to make ads that do not interfere with a user’s internet browsing experience. They say they are not trying to remove all ads, just the obnoxious ones.
The problem though is that AdBlock Plus requires publishers to pay an ‘undisclosed amount’ to have their ads whitelisted by the service. Some pundits, advertisers, and publishers argue that by removing the avenue by which publishers can make money and then requesting money to get it back amounts to extortion. A charge which AdBlock Plus was cleared of after being taken to court by publishers in Germany.
At the conferences we attended ideas for the future of independent journalism were floated. Speakers discussed the emergence of European startups, such as the Dutch company Blendle, whose application operates as a sort of iTunes for articles, allowing users to make ‘micropayments’ in exchange for the articles they want to read. Others talked of the need to view journalism as a public service and spoke of an ambitious plan to create a publically funded system to finance media across Europe.
And of course, clever advertisers have found more sophisticated ways of getting around ad blocking, employing strategies like native advertising and sponsored content, which themselves may prove to pose a threat to journalistic integrity and objectivity (more on that later).
EAVI does not want to tell you whether or not to use an ad blocker. We simply wish to give you an overview of the arguments and issues surrounding the topic of ad blocking so you can make an informed decision on your own. However, the choice is not black and white.
If you wish to support certain publishers without viewing their ad content then you may be able to pay for a subscription. If you wish to use an ad blocking app but you don’t like the sound of AdBlock’s Acceptable Ads Manifesto, then you can use an alternative ad blocker like uBlock Origin, Ghostery or Crystal. It is worth reading up on the available choices as some are more suited to certain devices and browsers than others. Importantly, some will also let you choose to see ads from certain sites if you wish.