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Ad blockers: A solution or a problem?

Robert L. Mitchell | Jan. 16, 2014
It's a cause. It's a curse. It's just business. Ad blockers take a bite out of the $20 billion digital advertising pie.

Faida says Adblock Plus needs money from big publishers to support the program. "Larger organizations that want to participate must support us financially to make sure that the initiative is sustainable," he says. "The idea is, despite the growing rate of ad blocking, for websites to still have a way to monetize ads."

Finding a middle ground

If Faida feels any sense of irony that his business model seeks remuneration from publishers that have suffered financial damage inflicted by a product his business distributes, he doesn't show it. Rather, he frames the argument in terms of moving away from the current "black and white approach," where all ads are blocked, to "finding a middle ground."

But where is the middle? What constitutes an annoying ad is subjective, but Faida says Adblock Plus has worked with the open-source community to develop and publish its acceptable ad guidelines. "Ads must be static -- no animations or blinking banners, they must be separated from content and clearly marked as ads," he says.

That's not viable, says Rob Beeler, vice president of content and media at AdMonsters LLC, a research and consulting firm that serves advertising professionals. "It's technically possible to adhere to their guidelines, but the CPMs [cost per impression] I would be able to get would be so low that it probably isn't worth it to most publishers."

Is ad-blocking ethical?

Is it ethical for users to run ad blockers? We asked Irina Raicu, director of Programs in Internet Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, to sort out the issues.

All parties share some of the blame for the current state of affairs, she says. First, publishers err in telling users that their content is free. While vendors don't have an obligation to provide content without cost, they do have an obligation to be truthful and transparent about the bargain, which may include paying for that content by viewing ads and/or having their online activities tracked by the publisher as well as third parties. "Most consumers don't understand that they're paying with more than just their attention and time, and that bargain needs to be clarified," she explains.

Raicu sympathizes with people who have responded to intrusive ads by installing ad blockers, but feels that ad blockers are a blunt instrument. "There is no nuance now, either to the bargain that's offered by the advertisers or to the response with ad blockers," she says. "Both are all or nothing."

Some consumers have tried to strike a middle ground. For example, they use whitelists to view some ads, or use an ad blocker like Ghostery that lets users explicitly decide which types of ads are objectionable and should be blocked. In addition, users who dislike the distraction of Flash-based advertising can install browser add-ons that just block Flash content, such as Flashblock for Firefox and Chrome.

 

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