No one likes online ads. Nobody enjoys a life-size shampoo bottle dancing across the morning news or a pop-up window obscuring cute cat pictures. “Creepy” best describes remarketing ads, products you looked at once that follow you around the rest of the internet.
So out of the internet’s collective cry of, “DIE, ADS!” ad-blocking software was born. According to The Economist, an estimated 200 million people worldwide use ad-blocking software regularly, up dramatically from about 25 million in 2009. The makers of AdBlock Plus, the most popular ad-blocking service, say their software has over 400 million downloads to its credit.
Ad-blocking initially worked on desktop and laptop computers. But as mobile adoption increases, the ad dollars—and ad-blocking software—follow. In mid-September 2015, Apple released iOS 9, its first operating system to have built-in ad-blocking support for Safari (its default web browser). A few days later, Tumblr Founder Marco Arment released his $3 ad-blocking app called Peace, which quickly shot to the #1 paid app in the iTunes Store (at least before he pulled it due to a crisis of conscience; more on that below).
And why shouldn’t you block ads? They’re ugly, distracting, and often include a tracking pixel that mines your personal data and online activity.
It’s eerily obvious to anyone who has ever been targeted by Facebook’s ads: The finely tuned targeting options go way beyond what people post to the site. Most people, for instance, never explicitly reveal their salary, favorite products, or intention to buy a car—but Facebook has ways of finding out. As online ad blogger Larry Kim writes, “Getting married soon? Taking medication for hypertension? Love reading murder mysteries? Facebook probably knows.” But how?
It’s not just Facebook, though. Websites increasingly harvest your personal info, evidenced only by a tiny pop-up bar that says, “Using our site means you agree to our terms and conditions.” Those terms and conditions can include allowing the site’s publisher to track your behavior internet-wide. Data brokers then compile this information to build a profile on you and sell it to advertisers. Big Data company Acxiom, for example, has an average of 1,500 “data points” for the average person—details you never explicitly divulged, like being an empty nester with a net worth below $100,000 or having a new teen driver in your household.
“All of that tracking and data collection is done without your knowledge, and—critically—without your consent,” wrote Arment in a blog post on ad blocking. “By following any link, you unwittingly opt into whatever the target site, and any number of embedded scripts from other sites and tracking networks, wants to collect, track, analyze, and sell about you.”
It’s chilling, which is why people love Ghostery, a sort of ad-blocker on steroids. Ghostery goes beyond simply blocking ads. It identifies trackers on the Web pages you’re on and allows you to block them collectively or individually. For example, while browsing your favorite news site, you can choose to block BlueKai, which Ghostery calls “the largest auction marketplace for all audience data,” and the ominously named “Scorecard Research Beacon” while enabling commenting widgets. It’s brilliant!
Fighting Back—or Punching Down?
But websites that need ad revenue might disagree. After all, you’re supporting them by passively allowing advertisers to market to you. Reading a listicle, essay or slideshow is free; running a media platform is not. Conventional wisdom says ads keep the lights on at little nonprofit news sites and indie style blogs.
For some, it’s true. In a profile, Columbia Journalism Review twice asserts how central ad dollars are for Rookie Magazine, Tavi Gevinson’s online mecca for teen girls. Ken Fisher, writer for technology news website Ars Technica, pleaded in 2010: “Imagine running a restaurant where 40 percent of the people who came and ate didn't pay. In a way, that's what ad blocking is doing to us.”
Similarly, guilt over harming the little guy was Arment’s motive for killing his ad-blocking app. “Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: While they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit,” he wrote on his blog. That’s the thinking behind an option in Adblock Plus called Acceptable Ads. Users can now opt to block all ads or allow the less-ugly, less-intrusive ones through.
However, ads aren’t the be-all and end-all. Some nonprofit news sites rely heavily on grants and donations; ad revenue is a smaller piece of the pie. Fashion bloggers need readers to buy their Etsy wares and click on their affiliate links. Ads are important, yes, but they aren’t everything.
And because ads and online trackers are increasingly creepy, some are hoping online users will be willing to pay a subscription fee instead. As TechCrunch contributor Danny Crichton writes, “Rather than scream “theft!” at [ad-block users], we need to find a new approach that takes into account their fears while ensuring that online media still has a place in business.”
A few sites are wising up. Dating site OkCupid shows a message to ad-blocking users complimenting their tech savvy (“You’re using ad-blocking software like a boss”) and asking for a reasonable one-time donation of $5. And The Guardian prompts donations with the message: “We notice that you’ve got an ad-blocker switched on. Perhaps you’d like to support the Guardian another way?”
At first, paying for something you’re used to getting for free seems ridiculous, especially to Millennials, less than half of whom pay for music, cable TV, or video games. But some are willing to shell out money to avoid ads.
TV service Hulu just started offering an ad-free package for $12 a month, only $4 per month more than its usual ad-studded package. “There's a small segment of the world that are just avoiding ads at all costs,” said Peter Naylor, the Hulu SVP of Ad Sales. “The good news with this new plan is that we have an opportunity to do business with them.” (Fine print: Seven shows still play ads before letting you watch them, so not even “ad-free” is completely ad-free.)
Hopefully a sustainable alternative will arise: a way to access the content you want, avoid ugly ads and invasive trackers, and support businesses at the same time. Crichton suggests Americans pay a flat monthly fee of about $15 tacked on to our internet bills or cell service payments in exchange for an ad-free internet. Last year’s online ad spending ($51 billion) divided by America’s internet users comes out to $14.17 per month, he reasons. Of course, this sounds great for us consumers, less so for the data brokers that want to build detailed profiles about our spending habits and then sell highly targeted ads.
Ultimately, the online advertising industry needs an overhaul. What Matt Asay wrote for CNET five years ago rings just as true today: “Online media publishers should change, as asking consumers to change is a recipe for failure—and for stagnation rather than innovation in business models. It's not the consumer's job to figure out a successful business model for the vendor.” Your move, publishers.