Once upon a time, the internet existed without advertisements. You would type in the address you wanted and, after waiting 30 minutes for the page to load, visit a website. Then, someone got the idea that you could advertise on a website while people were waiting for the page to load. Pop-ups appeared everywhere and, even though internet speeds increased, because of pop-ups, pages still took 30 minutes to load. It was just a matter of time before pop-up blockers appeared as a normal part of a browser.
Here’s a little known piece of trivia. Ethan Zuckerman invented the pop-up ad and, in so doing, can be called the Father of Internet Advertising.
As he observed in an article for The Atlantic, “At the end of the day, the business model that got us funded was advertising. The model that got us acquired was analyzing users’ personal homepages so we could better target ads to them. Along the way, we ended up creating one of the most hated tools in the advertiser’s toolkit: the pop-up ad.” He now regrets making this ad because it transformed the internet from a place of information exchange to a place to generate revenue. But it’s more than that. In analyzing homepages for personal data and targeted marketing, the internet became a tool for the invasion of privacy.
Some people like targeted ads (or ads in general). If they didn’t, if ads didn’t work, they would disappear from the internet. Ads persuade people to buy or do certain things. Either that, or they trick people into buying or doing certain things. The online advertising firms that distribute these ads must convince customers that they are better at this than competing firms. Nowadays, they do this by convincing customers that they control more personal information than other companies. Thus, better surveillance (collection of personal information) leads to better advertising. According to Zuckerman, “we’ve trained Internet users to expect that everything they say and do online will be aggregated into profiles”. In other words, people have become numb to the idea that everything they do on the internet will be watched and recorded. They now accept it as the norm.
To its credit, advertising helps keep web content free and more democratic. Nonetheless, there will always be people who don’t like advertising and will always look for a way to avoid it. Enter the adblocker. An adblocker will analyze a page that is loading and prevent certain script, that it ‘knows’ is connected to advertising, from opening. It knows what script connects with ads because adblockers come with a list of them; a blacklist. Another variant of the adblocker is to simply block certain types of media (like Flash). But in the end, all adblockers come with the same goal, which is to stop advertisers from advertising on pages that they, the advertisers, paid to advertise on. That’s when conflict arises.
No one likes to pay for services they don’t get. If everyone used adblockers, it would not be cost effective to advertise on the internet because, basically, you’d be paying for nothing. No one would see your ad. As it turns out, however, only about 27% of people use ad blockers. Most advertisers can live with this. The problem is that the adblocker market is growing. 41% of people between 18-29 years old say they use ad blocking software. This seems to indicate that more and more users will be using adblocking software in the future. As can be seen in the diagram below, the troubling reason for most people to use adblocking software is to remove all ads.
That’s why the use of adblockers is considered a declaration of war by many websites and advertisers. It’s the reason why some websites are making pre-emptive attacks on those people using them. Sites like Forbes and Wired are forcing anyone with adblocking to turn it off before they can read any content on their sites. Wired makes a good case for their decision.
“We know that you come to our site primarily to read our content, but it’s important to be clear that advertising is how we keep WIRED going: paying the writers, editors, designers, engineers, and all the other staff that works so hard to create the stories you read and watch here.”
Wired gives their readers two options. Disable adblockers or pay $1 a week for ad free content. Although some people agreed to the terms, others thought that Wired didn’t go far enough, claiming that, when they turned off their adblocker, half the page loading time was taken up with ads, some of which allowed tracking.
Forbes, in my opinion, one of the worst websites on the internet, tried the same approach as Wired. Unfortunately, they added a twist. When users disabled their adblocker software, they were promptly infected with malware. Malvertising is a particularly insidious way to deliver malware because such ads can deliver a malware payload even if the person doesn’t click on them. Malvertising is also difficult to stop, which is why it has been increasing at an alarming rate.
Forbes, or any other website allowing targeted ads, does not control the ads that appear on its pages and would have no idea that some ads were delivering malware to those who were forced to turn off their adblockers. However, malware distributors would be well aware of this fact, making such sites like Forbes prime targets for getting their malware distributed.
Other adblocker software producers have found an alternative way to allow ads to override adblockers on some sites. Adblock Plus offers a pay-to-be-white-listed program which allows those who pay to escape from being blocked by its own adblocker software. Some have referred to this as extortion.
But now the situation has gone to the next level. If an adblocker blocker stops you from visiting a site, you can use an adblocker blocker blocker or an anti-adblocker blocker. This program will allow you to keep using your adblocker on sites, like Forbes, which say they will not let you view content unless you disable adblockers. Basically, if fools the website into thinking that you are not using an adblocker, even though you are.
So what’s next, the anti-adblocker blocker blocker? Probably. As long as advertisers want to distribute ads, they will find ways to do so. As long as people hate being targeted for ads, they will find ways around them. It seems there is no place for negotiation here. It will be a war without a final victor.