Excuse me while I adjust the sign in the TMB offices to read ‘It has been  days since we last wrote about adblocking’.
As much as publishers must hate it, adblocking continues to snowball, becoming a bigger and bigger issue as it does so. Even as publishers become more dependent on the revenue the ads generate, the practice of blocking ads becomes more and more widespread.
We wrote last summer on the possibility of ad-blocking becoming widespread on mobile devices, as Apple had just announced it would enabling users to do just that, saying:
“Since iOS users comprise the vast majority of mobile web browsers – in the US at least – that’s suddenly very bad news for publishers, and even for Google, which reportedly sees 75 percent of its mobile revenue coming from iOS devices. That’s not so bad for Apple, however. In fact, it’s been suggested that Apple’s tacit support for adblocking is a calculated move to hurt Google directly.”
Just last week, it was announced that the mobile carrier Three is to offer the option to block ads to its users. Engadget reports:
“Three UK is positioning the partnership as a pro-consumer manoeuvre. In a press release, the carrier says ad-blocking will be used to achieve “three principle goals” — reducing data costs, protecting its customers from malware-riddled ads, and ensuring subscribers receive ads that are targeted and engaging, rather than intrusive and irrelevant.”
…which is eerily similar to the rhetoric employed by the providers of ad-blockers on desktop devices. This is for the consumer, it’s to give audiences choice, leeching money from publishers is nothing but a by-product.
Why did publishers ever bet against the internet’s ability to find a way round their anti-ad-blocking tools? https://t.co/TIvIflc9Wc
— Chris Sutcliffe (@chrismsutcliffe) February 11, 2016
There’s also the suggestion that, given the proliferation of tracking tools (which ad-blocking tools also prevent from working as intended) and ads’ harmful affects on user data being much worse on mobile, the practice will be adopted much more swiftly on mobile. That’s an extra challenge for publishers, many of whom are seeing over 50 percent of their audience coming on mobile devices.
And, as noted by writer and podcaster Marco Arment, the implied-contract theory upon which that ethical quandary rests – i.e. publishers provide content ‘for free’ so long as their audiences consume their ads – is invalidated by some of the small print the publishers then snuck into the agreement:
“All of that tracking and data collection is done without your knowledge, and — critically — without your consent. Because of how the web and web browsers work, the involuntary data collection starts if you simply follow a link. There’s no opportunity for disclosure, negotiation, or reconsideration…
“That’s why the implied-contract theory is invalid: people aren’t agreeing to write a blank check and give up reasonable expectations of privacy by clicking a link. They can’t even know what the cost of visiting a page will be until they’ve already visited it and paid the price.”
By and large, publishers cut their audiences out of the discussion around what effect the ad tech they employ has on their browser’s performance. As a result, we’re seeing more people conclude that ad-blocking is, in fact, ethical.
Despite that, the chief executive of the Interactive Advertising Bureau went on a rant against the ad-blocking providers, calling them: “an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes”.
It’s true that ad-blocking isn’t a zero-sum game – publishers stand to a lose a lot more if ad-blocking becomes ubiquitous than the ad-blocking providers stand to gain. But the vitriol directed against ad-blocking providers misses the point.
Adoption of ad-blocking tools is a symptom of something much more fundamental. Consumers have lost faith in the news publishers as a result of exploitation of the implied contract of free content supported by inoffensive and harmless ads. Vitriol might make for a great keynote speech, but unless publishers address the lack of trust, adoption of ad-blockers is only going to increase.