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The ethics of ad-blocking

This week's Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine gets the ethics of ad-blocking wrong. In saying there's nothing wrong with blocking ads, Randy Cohen writes:

You have no duty to consume advertising. There is no implied agreement between you and the sponsor whereby the sponsor finances a Web site in exchange for your perusing a sales pitch. Advertisers know that many people will flip past a magazine ad or hit ''mute'' when a TV commercial comes on. That you have automated the avoidance of ads shows not ethical laxity but technological ingenuity.

The problem is, web advertising doesn't work as it does in print publications, or on TV. Print publications and TV networks get paid before the ads even run, whether readers and viewers see the ads or not. Online advertisers, however, only pay per "impression," or view, and ad-blocking techniques prevent those impressions from occurring. With print and TV ads, the advertisers assume the risk that viewers might ignore the ads. Online, however, they only assume that risk after the ad loads on the web page — so blocking the ads in the first place victimizes the content provider, not the advertiser.

It's hard to think of a physical analogy. It would be like finding a way to trick a magazine or newspaper into printing an extra copy and giving it to you for free, and without the copy counting toward the publication's total readership (which plays a major role in determining what prices a publication can demand from its advertisers). You are adding to the publication's operating costs, and defeating their intended revenue mechanisms at the same time.

I don't count blocking online ads as much of a sin, but I don't see how you could defend it. And, personally, I wouldn't want to — the web currently makes a remarkable range of free resources available to you and me, and I'm perfectly happy to tolerate a few pop-ups and Flash banners in order to help it stay that way.

March 26, 2002 1:02 AM

Comments

Normally, I find your opinions, if not agreeable, at least thorough and logical, but to imply that ad blocking is ethically questionable is wrong.

To quote-
“The problem is, web advertising doesn't work as it does in print publications, or on TV. Print publications and TV networks get paid before the ads even run, whether readers and viewers see the ads or not. Online advertisers, however, only pay per "impression," or view, and ad-blocking techniques prevent those impressions from occurring. With print and TV ads, the advertisers assume the risk that viewers might ignore the ads. Online, however, they only assume that risk after the ad loads on the web page — so blocking the ads in the first place victimizes the content provider, not the advertiser.”

I cannot see how a business model is the responsibility of the consumer. If the content provider fails to realize the expected revenue from the contractual arrangement, the content provider needs to find a better revenue model. Is this not the reason for the current demise of tech stocks? The business model must provide a sustainable method of existence. If that means the end of free content, so be it. All content has a price.

Further more, the inability to provide a physical analogy emphasizes an incomplete comprehension of the subject matter. The analogy given is weak, at best. In a certain sense, you have implied the consumer is “stealing” newspapers. Will we now hear about revenue “loss” every time we change channels to ignore commercials, flip past ads in publications, or kill pop-up ads before they displays?

Commercialism inundated our lives. Please allow me some ability to control it when it exceeds my ability to tolerate it.

I could go on, but I do not want this to be a diatribe, only a counter-point to your opinion.

Posted by Sean McCarthy on March 26, 2002 6:02 PM

The analogy given is weak, at best. In a certain sense, you have implied the consumer is ěstealingî newspapers.

This implication is intended, though. When you block ads, you are, in a certain sense, stealing bandwidth. It costs money to serve content; the only reason it is economical for certain web publishers is because they hope to make money off the advertising.

Will we now hear about revenue ělossî every time we change channels to ignore commercials, flip past ads in publications, or kill pop-up ads before they displays?

But the revenue isn't lost in print or TV, as it is online, because advertisers don't pay per impression. If they did, magazines and TV networks would either be bankrupt or charging us more money just for access to their content.

To speak to your larger point, no, the consumer isn't responsible for the business model. But that is no defense for deliberately circumventing business models that can be circumvented. If you are able to hack into a subscribers-only area of a site (because of imperfect security) without purchasing a subscription, does that make it right? Bars offer free nuts to their customers -- does that make it right to take them off the truck?

The problem in this case isn't with the business model itself, but with certain users deliberately circumventing its mechanism. That this behavior makes the model that much weaker is no defense for the behavior itself.

As for defenses against commercialism, it's up to you what websites you want to visit. And I don't think ad blocking is any great sin, either -- its costs, as far as I can see, are relatively negligible. I just don't agree that it's good behavior.

Posted by M on March 26, 2002 7:17 PM

To a degree, the music industry must confront the same argument. While you could argue that ad blocking is a lesser form of file sharing (both deprive revenue), to stop the circumvention of the business model has ancillary implications.

To address your response, TV does charge money. I pay a monthly cable bill. NBC, ABC and CBS are continually lamenting their dwindling audience. In European countries, the citizens pay taxes to support television. Therefore, yes, they do charge us money for their content.

Hacking a site or stealing off a truck has intent that ad blocking lacks.

Circumventing a business model is not necessarily illegal or unethical. Our courts are trying to grapple with this concept now, much as we must. This conundrum confronts authors, writers and columnist. Those that published before the Internet, now see their work on websites, without permission, hosted by their publishers.

This issue will remain an enigma

Posted by Sean McCarthy on March 26, 2002 9:59 PM

Ever since I started going online back in 1997, I would go to many sites and I would get totally flooded with ads. It was like one popup ad every other second almost. Heck, I would spend just as much time closing all those stupid popups as I would be spending time actually reading the meat of the site. It didn't take very long at all for me to get all fed up with the whole ad crap on the internet. See, it would not have been any big deal at all if only, say, one or two popups appeared per site I would go to. That I could manage. But since all those sites are carried away with throwing ads at you, I have unregretably taken definitive steps to filter just about any and all ads that might come my way online. I have my HOSTS file that I update regularly, I utilize my firewall's ad blocking feature, I have 2 other ad-blocking programs that I use. I can tell you this, if one of those measures doesn't filter out an ad(pop-up, banner, et al.), another one WILL. Let me tell you, the Internet is so much nicer when there are no ads. One other thing, many of the ads one encounters online are for porn sites which many times I find totally offensive. Why should I have to put up with seeing that crap?

Posted by Les on December 31, 2003 11:58 PM


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