Is Adblocking Unethical?

I came across an admittedly biased interview on CNET, where an executive VP of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (an online advertising industry advocacy group) was resorting to vitriolic ranting and name-calling against adblockers. It showed how adblockers are leaving a dent in their industry. It didn’t however argue why affecting their bottomline is unethical, and merely used the straw man of the collapse of the internet if the disruption continues.

I am personally an adblock user. That’s one of the first things I do when I set up a new machine; install Adblock and Ghostery. I usually whitelist the community-generated content providers that I frequent, and know won’t survive without the ads. It just feels right; just like when I tip my waiters as I know they’ll have difficulty without tips in the status quo. Am I robbing other websites of the attention to the ads they feel entitled to? Is it ethical?

We can look at this dilemma from two different angles; whether or not users are stealing money from the individual websites, and if adblocking is good for the internet as a whole. I disagree that refusing to look at adverts equals stealing. Embedding ads next to the actual content implies that by consuming the content, you are helping the provider make profit. Let me use an analogy.

The hat next to a street musician has a very similar implication; please pay if you enjoyed. You never feel obligated to spare change to anyone though (you might be guilt-tripped into it, but never forced). Some people like to help out the talented ones, and simply make them happy since the performance made them happy, but most don’t. If someone forced you to pay up during a street performance, blocked your view, or disrupted your experience otherwise, wouldn’t you be annoyed and just walk away? I skip talking about the creepy trackers.

The obligation to pay for publicly available art or entertainment has never been easy to formulate. It’s usually more about the consumers’ willing to pay than the providers’ enforcement. Sometimes, the publishers have had the technological means to force-fed ads to consumers in a very aggresive way (e.g. cable TV adverts), but it’s now the consumers that have the technological capability to strip the content of intrusive ads and trackers. If producers can’t earn enough money through intrusive advertising, they should find another way to monetize their content or spend their time and effort on something more lucrative. Sorry; the landscape is shifting and so should your business model.

Isn’t it bad though? Doesn’t it make the pie smaller for everyone? Maybe. CNET’s interview didn’t provide much relevant data, and it’s outside the scope of this blog to quantitatively analyze the market anyway. What I can predict is that if the advertising industry doesn’t find ways to make ads less intrusive and more interesting, and doesn’t dissuade people from actively blocking them, they will have a hard time. They may get into an arms race with adblockers, but that’s never a good idea for them. They may regulate or even criminalize adblocking (see piracy laws), but the current economy is not stable and is certainly going to change.

When advertising is not a viable business model any more, site owners may start putting their content behind paywalls, or come up with smarter monetization strategies. It means that the publicly available content may have lower quality, or websites will simply go out of business. You need to be either a hobbyist or a large corporation to be sustainable in the new economic balance. We may need to pay for good content like good old days of newspapers, or struggle to find them among too much noise. It’s going to be uncomfortable to go back there, but without appropriate planing of the industry, it seems inevitable.

There have been proposals like this to find a middle ground for acceptable advertising. The demise of the ads-for-content economy can be prevented if producers and consumers can come up with and agree on standards of what will be tolerated. Until that day, I believe the consumers’ revolt against online advertising is only a reaction to the their creepy, aggressive, and intrusive methods, and certainly not unethical. I’m afraid democratization of content creation and consumption might force businesses to actually listen to the consumers after all!

Published: April 05, 2014