An Ad-Blocking Compromise

The debate over ad-blocking, spurred by the OS-level support for ad blockers in iOS9, has the feel of a religious war to me. People on both sides are making arguments as to why they are right, as if it would convince the others, but nobody is listening or really open to a new point of view. Be that as it may, I am going to foolishly wade in with a compromise proposal for “site blockers” instead of ad blockers.


Many good points have been made in the existing debate. Dan Primack argues that reading people’s sites while blocking their ads is akin to stealing. You are taking what you want, the content, but saying “no thanks” to paying for it by viewing the ads posted alongside it. I have argued a similar point.

On the other side, the argument is presented that media and the ad-tech industry have got themselves into this mess themselves. Matthew Ingram argues this side of this well. His concluding paragraph frames that side of the argument well:

What is unlikely to fly as a long-term strategy is begging readers to load all of the 50 or so trackers and ad-loaders and popups and banners, each of which might make a publisher three cents per thousand clicks, if they are lucky. That business is in a death spiral, and yelling about ad blockers isn’t going to change that. Evolution is a messy business, but it goes on regardless. Adapt or die.

This is true, I think. The ads on many sites are pretty horrible and intrusive. And all the tracking gunk, and slow load times, are a tax on everybody who uses the internet. And it’s not clear that, left alone, the industry will do anything but get worse.

I would like a better internet content viewing experience. I spend all day reading the internet. If you have stooped to reading this far into this article, it’s a pretty safe bet you do, too. We would all like a streamlined, fast, pleasurable reading experience. Nevertheless, I still have these concerns:

  1. There is good content from small producers who require ad networks to support their writing on a small scale. In my case, I love the Golden State Warriors, and there are a whole new class of NBA writers who are intelligent — a couple gave up their careers as lawyers to do what they love and write about hoops. (Writers like Danny Leroux, Adam Lauridsen, Nate Duncan, the guys at Warriors World.) These guys clearly are willing to take a modest living to do what they love — but if they clearly have to make something to support themselves. I want them to exist. These people do not have the resources or skills to go invent a new ad format. If we take away their income, they will have to go do something else.
  2. Free riding is awesome. It would be great to have today’s current rich content web but not have to bear the cost of its production. When ad blockers were fringe, there was no noticeable impact on the availability of good content to read. I think a lot of people are extrapolating or assuming that the same will remain true: they will get everything they like today, but better. I do not think this is a rational. This is a classic free rider problem. It’s true that the adoption of ad blockers by any one person will not change anything. It’s the same as the argument for not voting: no major election has ever been decided by a single vote, consequently, voting is a waste of time. Why should I view ads when the consequences of ad blocking will be what they are no matter what I do? I don’t have a good answer for this — it is true, I believe.
  3. “Evolution is a messy business. Adapt or Die.” Matthew Ingram’s argument calls out to the inner Ayn Rand in all of us. But what if we end up much poorer for it? There is a lot of very useful free content from publishers that I personally would like to see grow and expand. This rich repository of the world’s knowledge is less than two decades into its creation. I’m not a fan of eunthanizing it and crossing my fingers that it comes back in some superior form. I like sushi just like the next guy, but is telling the Bluefin tuna “Evolution is a messy business. Adapt or Die.” really our best path forward? Sure if we wipe it out, maybe some new tasty mutant fish will come evolve into the gap that reproduces fast enough to satisfy our sushi demands. But another alternative would be to modify our consumption in a way that doesn’t mandate every species adapt to satisfy our demands, just because we are powerful enough to do so.
  4. A unilateral blocking of all ads punishes well behaved content producers as well as poorly behaved ones. Plenty of good small content creators avoid the most intrusive ad formats, eschew the most invasive trackers, care about their user experience and load times.
  5. While pop over, video ads etc are really annoying, I think many people are making more of this “awful” experience than it really is. For example, I get annoyed by re-targeting and having the same e-commerce merchant advertise to me everywhere I go. It’s a bit creepy. But I know these ads perform, and ads that perform are what pays the bills for the content I like to read. And really, while it’s not great to always see the same ad, it really is not that big of a deal. This is the definition of a first-world problem.
  6. Everybody has a stake in this game. Most people arguing against content blockers have a stake in the success of ad driven content on the web (including myself). Most people arguing for content blockers have a stake in improving their web browsing experience. I think the vast majority of us start with what we want, and then construct the logic that validates what we want to believe in order to support that. Benedict Evans said it well, though it likely applies to both sides of the argument:


The Compromise — “Site Blocker rather than Ad Blocker”

The way to vote against bad behavior is to not give your business to those sites whose ads you don’t like. This rewards those sites who are well behaved, punishes those who show the ads that you believe are harmful, and gives them an actual incentive to change their behavior. It doesn’t “free ride” by consuming content and not paying for it.

The cognitive load of trying to rememeber all the sites which are bad actors would be too much to do it manually. Also, it’s hard to know what trackers you might object to are being used on a new site. And URL shorteners often mean you don’t know what site you are going to until it’s too late.

What about using an ad blocker which, rather than stripping ads from every site, just strips all content from any site that uses an ad network or tracking pixel that you object to? It could be in the form of loading a fast, blank page, disabling links to pages that won’t load. Or, if this were supported at the OS level (on mobile), change the color of links to sites whose practices you don’t support to red instead of blue (and/or disabling them). You could use a strikethrough on the text of the link rather than an underline.

You can either institute blanket blocks of certain ad networks, analytics tools, or trackers — and forego reading all sites that use them. Or you could just ban URLs as you go, never to return.

What are the negatives associated with this solution?

  1. Users will restrict their own access to a large part of the available web content. Many will prefer an ad stripper instead, keeping all the content without the ads.
  2. Users will have to invest some effort into curating their blocking experience. Obviously 3rd parties could provide suggested block sets of the sites with a low value to gunk ratio, or networks/trackers worth unilaterally blocking.

But, the main negative is probably just the nuanced nature of this problem. For us in the industry, it’s a clear and interesting dilemma with strong opinions on both sides. But the average internet user can be forgiven for not thinking through the downstream effects of adopting an ad blocker. Or eating some more bluefin tuna.

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Written by Josh Hannah
Josh Hannah joined Matrix Partners after a career as a serial entrepreneur (Betfair, eHow, wikiHow.) Read more about Josh.

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