« Back to home

On ad blocking and ethics

Apple’s introduction of an API for browser content blockers on iOS has reignited the debate over ad blocking on the web.

While Apple have promoted the feature as something aimed at improving the mobile user experience, others have pointed out that it’s transparently an attempt to harm Google. In truth, it’s both of those things.

The mobile web experience without a content blocker is wretched. Just yesterday I attempted to read an article on the New York Times, only to have it forcibly scroll my tablet to the top of the page in an endless loop to try to force me to read the ads. This new practice is probably a result of user studies I saw recently (no handy link, sorry) revealing that half of users now start scrolling down to avoid the ads before the page has even finished rendering.

Another good example of just how bad things can be is The Verge, who bloat every few kilobytes of page content with 2.6MB or more of ads and scripts. Then there are the sites still using Flash, who pop up large gray rectangles over their content.

On desktop, I don’t block ads. Instead, I block third party scripts, cookies and plugins. Given that major ad networks’ scripts have been used to spread malware, I view the script blocking as an essential security practice. The cookie blocking is simply to reduce the amount I’m tracked across the web. Flash is a security and privacy disaster that should have died ages ago, so I don’t have it installed.

But here’s the thing: blocking invasive and dangerous ads is, in practice, much like blocking all ads. Major sites like CNN and the New York Times show up ad-free, because all their ads attempt to track you and hijack control of your browser. This shows that there’s a big problem with the online advertising industry.

Newspaper ads and billboards don’t interrupt people’s navigating the city or track them as they travel, yet they’re still effective. But somehow because it was possible to do those things on the web, advertisers managed to persuade site owners that it was necessary. Well, it isn’t, and now we’re seeing the backlash.

The sites now screaming about the evils of ad blockers need to adjust their approach. If you give people a choice of invasive ads or no ads, they’ll take no ads every time. So instead, you need to rein in your demands and ask people to limit their blocking.

So, encourage users to install Privacy Badger in place of a full-on ad blocker, or to turn on the option to allow non-invasive ads in AdBlock Plus. Go back to safe scriptless ads that don’t try to install cross-site tracking cookies. People will see your ads and still keep their privacy and security, and everyone will be happy.