The Ethics of Adblock

The Ethics of Adblock

12 Dec, 2015. | By: AceLewis


Adblock is software used on computers and mobile devices whose main purpose is to block web advertisements. Adblock is growing in it’s use and an estimated 20.3% of people in the UK use it. Mobile phones have for a long time been a safe haven for online advertisements as installing Adblock meant either changing to a specialised browser or by Jailbreaking/Rooting the device.

Why do People Use it?

There are many reasons why someone would choose to install Adblock, one is they don’t want to be tracked by online advertisers although by Adblocking extensions do not necessarily try to stop tracking it can be enabled in some software. This is a good reason to use Adblock is a good one as trackers ignore your “Do Not Track” if you have enabled it in your browser and will track you anyway, web tracking can bypass this blocking by tracking the browsers “fingerprint” which includes the IP address, screen size and resolution, browser, operating system, installed extensions and other features, so although people don’t want to be tracked they can be however Adblock can stop a lot of tracking that is done by third parties. First parties will still be able to track you for example Facebook whilst you are on Facebook but you can diable Facebook from knowing what sites you visit that have the like on Facebook button. Another reason to use Adblock is virus’ can be distributed through them, Yahoo and YouTube have distributed ads and malware. It is not uncommon to see, one example of this I have observed on a YouTube video is shown here;

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Obviously this is not real however I wanted to check to see exactly what is was, on the install page if you scroll to the bottom you can see that the website does disclose that the software you are installing for your copy of Minecraft is adware (software that injects advert into your webpages) however many people would not read this and younger people (who this advert is aimed at) would install without reading.

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I then installed the software on a Virtual Machine and as expected it installed adware and did not give you a copy of Minecraft as promised. Google, Yahoo and other advertising networks should monitor that adverts they publish on their ad networks and should have more accountability for what they allow. This is a serious reason to install Adblock especially on the computers of older people and children.

The main reason people seem to use Adblock is because of annoying adverts, some adverts are flashy, some autoplay videos when you are trying to view a news article and advertisements seem to get more annoying as time goes on. Annoying advertisements have existed in the past e.g popups however most browsers today have popup blockers to block this annoying type of advertising. Now annoying adverts take many forms not just popups. The reason why websites like newspapers are allowing more annoying adverts is because they tend to pay more per view however this short term strategy may hurt the industry as it forces users to install Adblocking software. I believe if all websites used less annoying adverts people would be less inclined to use and install Adblock, however the short term benefits of allowing annoying adverts is favored.

The Mobile Safe Haven

Currently mobile phones and tablets tend to not have Adblock installed only about 2% of users on IOS and android have Adblock installed. This has the potential to be a good thing however many websites exploit this by showing annoying adverts as they know their users can’t block the ads without Rooting or Jailbreaking, as a result users will then want to install Adblock on mobile devices. The image shown below contains two examples or annoying adverts on mobile, one that autoplayed a video and the other a full screen advert that you had to click a little x in the corner.

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This type of advertising would not be acceptable on desktop and it is not acceptable on mobile, however at the moment mobile phones and tablets don’t have large Adblock percentages due to the difficulty of installing Adblock it will soon to become easy. In IO9 Apple introduced content filters, although Apple didn’t state they were for blocking adverts that is what they are intended for and are the main purpose they are being used for e.g Refine, 1Blocker and many pretty much all content filters. Fairly recently Adblock Plus introduced the Adblock Browser for Android, simply Firefox with Adblocking filters to block the annoying mobile adverts. As both these methods make installing Adblock easy on mobile devices without Jailbreaking or Rooting combined with adverts on mobile being more annoying than desktop I suspect that the Adblock percentages for mobile phones and tablets will sky rocket and will not take that long for the percentages to be comparable to desktop. Unless anything is done to solve the underlying problems mobile will not be a safe haven anymore.

The Prevalence and Effect of Adblock

Adblock seems like a good solution to improve your browsing experience however it has a very big drawback, the reason websites show ads is to make money to pay for hosting, domain names, and the labor of writing the articles. By blocking adverts you no longer fund the websites you visit with your eyes, now this would not have a large impact on the websites revenue however the amount of users that have Adblock in the UK grew by 81% this year to 20.3% if this trend continues most people will use Adblock so websites will have to find other ways to monetize their content mainly by using paywalls. 20.3% is a considerable amount however for people aged 18-29 the amount of Adblocking users is 41%, as a result tech and gaming websites see a much higher percentage of Adblock users. Adblock cost the industry about 21.8 billion dollars in 2015, this figure is expected to grow to 41.4 billion dollars in 2016.

Traditionally media has been free to consume online however as more and more people use Adblock paywalls will be introduced, YouTube has been a website that all content was free to consume however a big announcement this year was the introduction of YouTube Red whereby users could pay a monthly fee to remove advertisements and access paywalled original content. “YouTube Red exist because using Adblock has actual consequences”, other websites will follow in YouTube footsteps and internet users will end up less and less content that can be viewed freely.

The Ads are Evolving

Although one way to bypass Adblock is to paywall your content a lot of publishers are moving towards “Sponsored Content”, as mentioned before YouTube is introducing paywalls as one way to tackle Adblock however many of the publishers on YouTube have sponsors, if you watch YouTube videos I am sure you have heard of Audible, Harry’s Razors, Lynda.com and many more companies that sponsor the videos. These sponsors can pay a flat rate per video but often pay the content maker a referral from the users that either use the link in the description or a coupon code. This type of advertising can’t be blocked and is becoming more and more common, some big YouTubers will make whole videos that are sponsored for example FPSRussia and DudePerfect.

One big problem with Sponsored videos is that quite often the video does not at all state anywhere within it and often not in the description that the video is sponsored, not only is this very dishonest and misleading but it is also against advertising rules and regulations. The “Oreo Lick Race” was a sponsored advertising campaign to advertise Oreos by getting many famous YouTube stars to participate, as part of the deal they did not disclose that they were making sponsored videos. Some of the YouTubers evolved in this were Thomas “TomSka” Ridgewell [Video mirror], Dan and Phil [Video mirror], Emma Blackery [video not available but proof it was posted]. These videos were serious violations of the Advertising Standards Authority because the videos were not “obviously identifiable marketing communications” they were therefore removed from YouTube.

This is not a one off event and is becoming more common even though YouTube have now revised their policies on paid product endorsement Microsoft paid YouTubers upto £20,000 to advertise the Xbox One as part of a ““deceptive” ad campaign” under similar circumstances with a non disclosure agreement. Sponsored videos are often not disclosed and sometimes hard to detect a prime example is this advert for fashion items. There should be much more pressure on YouTubers to comply with advertising rules to curve this trend and have a more transparent web.

Most of this has been aimed as YouTube however this can be seen all across the web, South Park has done episodes on how adverts on news websites display misleading advertisements, South Park has also made a few episodes with the plot of how advertising companies are trying to advertise to people whilst disguising the ads as normal content, this would not be joked about on such a big show unless it is very apparent to people.

The War on Adblock

Adverts are evolving to bypass Adblock as shown above however as more and more people use it and it becomes even more of a problem there will be an online battle of publishers vs Adblock. Many Adblock users think that there will always be a way to block ads that may not be true, the reason why ads can easily be blocked is because of filters. Adblock filters for example EasyList contain a large list of rules, these rules are then applied when you load a website. The rules aim to block ads but keep the real content, this is currently very effective as most adverts are served through networks like Google Adsense so it is easy to see what is an advert and what is not in the future Google may allow publishers to display adverts through their own domain making it much harder to block the adverts. Another method to stop the use of Adblock is detect if the user is running Adblock and then either display a message asking the user to turn off Adblock and allow them to view the content or block the user from seeing the content all together. This method is easy to implement and can become harder for Adblockers to bypass, there has already been some minor battles with FuckAdblock a script that you can easily put into your website that detects Adblocking users so you can display messages or block them from viewing content and FuckFuckAdblock a Userscript to stop FuckAdblock from detecting if Adblock is being used. FuckAdblock and many other anti-adblock measures today rely on JavaScript so the detecting of Adblock is done on the client side so can be theoretically blocked however in the future Adblock could be detected on the server side by seeing if your browser loads a embedded image or not, this would then be impossible to bypass with the current Adblock extensions.

My Opinions and Conclusion

My opinion is that adverts fund websites so blocking them is bad however the advertising industry is shooting themselves in the foot by displaying annoying adverts forcing users to install Adblock. As the percentage of Adblock users rises websites will just put their content behind paywalls so users can’t freely view them or use more sophisticated ways to detect Adblock and only allow non-adblock users to view them. I believe that Adblock is an overkill solution, people are annoyed by obnoxious ads and install Adblock but that blocks all ads even the ones they didn’t mind. From what I have seen online many people feel entitled to view free content without ads but don’t say how publishers should make the money without charging.

We need a happy medium one where websites can monetize their content and users can freely view the content without being annoyed by ads. Also some ads can be good for the users, they can find products websites or services that they enjoy for example the YouTube adverts for Harrys razors have influenced me into looking into finding cheaper and better razors and not buy the massively marked up razors (over 4,000% markup) in the supermarkets.

I am interested to know what your opinions of Adblock are and what would you deem to be acceptable.

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I am interested in Physics, Maths, Programming and also play a few games in my spare time. I have an interest in data and have made webscrapers to gather and process information, I am currently looking into nice ways to display information easily in infographics using Python. I can code in Matlab, Python and have also made a Steam trading bot in Node.JS.

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