The Problem With Ad Blockers: There Ain’t No Such Thing as Free Content

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PageFair’s 2015 Ad Blocking Report paints a desperate picture for  web publishers. Those publishers, according to the report, can expect to lose $22 billion in revenues this year from readers’ widespread use of “ad blocking” software.

Halfway into the web’s third decade, content providers still struggle to monetize their products. Readers who never thought twice about springing for printed newspapers or magazines in “the old days” balk at ponying up for web editions. “Paywalls” don’t seem to work very well.

“Free” is the content watchword … but there’s no such thing as free. Most serious content providers publish for profit, not for fun. So the revenue model has evolved toward loading out every page with ads, then running as much traffic past those ads as possible.

I’m sympathetic to users, mind you. Too many ads can get very annoying, very quickly. I installed an ad blocker myself recently, specifically so that I could visit one site that (according to the ad blocker’s counter) averaged more than 20 advertisements per web page, slowing my computer to a crawl. After awhile, I rethought my strategy, uninstalled the ad blocker, and stopped visiting that site.

My reasoning: Checkout lines are inconvenient and annoying, too, but I don’t get to fill my cart with groceries and just breeze right on past the register. That would be stealing.

It seems to me that there’s a similar, if implicit, contract with web content providers. They’re not giving me the content, they’re selling it to me. The price is letting them put ads in front of me. If I’m not willing to pay that price, I shouldn’t expect the publisher to put out.

I’ve talked with fellow web readers about this. Some of them push back, pointing out that web advertising keeps getting more and more intrusive. Cookies and other tracking devices don’t just show you ads; they follow you around the Internet gathering information about you to target those ads to your interests.

I agree that tracking can get pretty creepy. And dealing with the various scripts that make the tracking possible bogs down my machine.

I think there’s a market solution to this, one that involves tough love on both sides of the content divide.

Instead of using ad blockers, readers should stop visiting sites with intrusive and annoying advertising … after hitting the contact links and explaining why they’ll be doing so in the future.

Instead of running an arms race with ad blockers, trying to find ways around them, publishers should just install scripts that detect the blockers … and black out site content entirely for readers using them.

It seems to me that this course would eventually result in some kind of detente: Readers becoming more tolerant of ads, publishers thinking more carefully about how much advertising they run, and ad brokers getting less intrusive with their tracking.

The last thing to do — unless we’re idiots — is ask government to regulate the user-provider interaction. That would only make things worse.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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  • I don’t mind ads as much as I do a whole bunch of video clips on a site. Some news sites seem particularly prone to shoving as many videos as they can on their site. Those could freeze up my screen for minutes.

    I ended up selecting an option for Firefox that disables video unless I allow them. Works pretty well and sped up a few of my news sites quite a bit. The downside being sometimes when I want to see a video, it won’t work, most notably video links on Facebook.

  • MamaLiberty

    Yes indeed, the free market will solve the problems. Web sites don’t have to push assault type ads. There are a number of ads at Claire Wolfe’s blog, for instance, that don’t scream and flash at me, or slow down my computer. I’ve even visited some of those ad sites.

    Until ads stop assaulting me, I’ll use adblock. Ads such as at Claire’s place are not blocked.