OpinionatedDavid: Has Adblock Plus Crossed A Line?

We seem to have something of a theme rotation developing on these columns don’t we? I swear it’s not intentional, but the topics that rear their heads for me to cover seem to go in couplets. We had twin entries about DC getting pie on their face; followed by two weeks of uncomfortable conversations about the nature of free expression;, and now, we’re in our second week of advertising related nonsense online. Any bets about what’s coming next? Reboots? New console hardware? Maybe a double-bill of gushing over Disney announcing a live-action Gargoyles movie?

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Shut up! It could happen, you don’t know!

Time for me to get to the point. Adblock Plus, sellers of the leading browser extension of the same name (the function of which should be self-explanatory) have recently announced a new feature of their service known as the “Acceptable Ads Platform”. In partnership with Google, among others, this platform will allow certain advertisers that meet Adblock’s standards of acceptability to buy their way through the filters of the software, meaning those ads will be seen by end users ever when they have Adblock turned on. Adblock Plus then gets a tidy cut of the revenue from said ads, naturally, with the rest going to the advertisers, with a further division of that sum presumably, at some point (it’s really not very clear) finding their way to creators who host ads on their content as a way of making a living. If that all smells a little funny to you, then it might be because a similar business model in the outside world might be called a protection racket.

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So yes, after years of building a brand on shutting advertisers out of the loop and denying creators revenue, Adblock has decided ads are a-ok by their user base after all… so long as they decide they like you… and so long as you pay up. As you can imagine, this news has not gone down so well with everyone, particularly with content creators who had a dim view of Adblock to begin with. In their view, Adblock Plus has spent years enabling consumers of their content to consume without any money getting back to the person who worked to create it (as well as nurturing what some of them see as a consumer culture that inherently doesn’t value their work and feels entitled to everything for free), and is now proposing to make even more money by cutting in to the creator’s share of what ads are allowed to get through. While we’ll be getting into how I don’t necessarily agree with all of that, I have to admit that if I were them (which I may well be before too long) I’d be pissed off too.

Adblock, for their part, have been quick to marshal a defence against the backlash. Their line is that they’re not just trying to make money off ads, they’re trying to improve them. They site market research that claims only 25% of their user base wouldn’t tolerate any ads on the pages and video’s they view, and that by filtering through ads that meet their standards of legitimacy and unobtrusiveness, they will be allowing the ad-supported model to carry on while still delivering a quality end user experience.

Now, once I’m finished washing the marketing spiel out of my mouth, it would be remiss of me not to concede that they may have a point…

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To uncomfortably confess, I am an Adblock Plus user. I took me a long time to throw in the towel and install the browser extension, but ever since I have I can barely conceive of going back under any circumstances (a testament to just what a difference their filter makes to the end user). The reason I was originally reluctant to jump on board was primarily a huge technophobic streak, if we’re telling the truth, but there was a point of principle in their somewhere too. I cannot agree with the sentiment that using blockers is ‘stealing’ from creators. It’s not. It objectively isn’t. For one thing, ads or no ads, the experience for the end user is free to begin with. You can’t steal something that you weren’t paying for in the first place. However, it does still feel kind of morally grey in its own right. I wanted to see creators who I valued getting paid for honest work, so I stuck it out… until I didn’t anymore.

The more conscientious of creators will publicly admit that ads are can be terrible. Not ‘inconvenient’, not ‘irritating’, a terrible, ruinous experience for the end user. I caved to Adblock the moment I realised I was starting not to enjoy anything I was trying to watch or read anymore, as the advertising grew more and more intrusive and skeevy. If nothing else, a lot of users have come to see blockers as the most effective security measure their browser has. I may have felt guilty doing it, but neither can I say I regret it. At the end of the day, the consumer has a responsibility to get the best possible deal for the consumer, and nobody else. You can’t blame people for acting in their own best interests, and as a consumer, Adblock Plus has been a Godsend to me. That does not mean, however, that I am against adverts wholesale. So long as they stay at the margins where I can easily ignore or skip them when I choose to, I can tolerate their presence, which is the kind of vision Adblock Plus claims to be offering.

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Of course, that’s the theory. I may have said something last week about corporate entities not having a native moral compass of their own, and Adblock Plus is most certainly one of those. I have a hard time just taking their word for it that they will choose what ads they let through with care based on what I want (or rather don’t want) to see. They are out to make as much money as they can, and I have little doubt the ad space beyond their filters will be sold to no more or less than the highest bidder. The only thing that will keep that philosophy in check will be the tolerance of the end-users not to switch to different software if the ads start annoying them.

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I could end the article here, just giving Adblock Plus the middle finger, but in all honesty, I don’t see them as an outright villain here. Oh, I’m sure they don’t care that they make a living screwing other people out of theirs, but hey, welcome to the Free Market. In the end, their service wouldn’t be popular if end users didn’t hate ads; and as I’ve already covered, I can’t blame users for hating ads either. I don’t even blame the advertisers (not the legitimate ones anyway). They’re also just filling a gap in the market. So, does that just leave the content creators at fault for taking the money of underhanded advertisers? Of course not. Besides, it’s a fair assessment that the reason ads got steadily worse and worse over the years, was that the rise of blockers made the advertisers more desperate for our attention, and creators more desperate for money as their content became less profitable, driving them into the arms of advertisers with fewer moral scruples.

It’s the system that’s the real villain. The ad-supported revenue model stinks. It’s always stunk since long before the advent of the internet, and it brings the worst out of everyone involved. In my view, creators need to explore whatever other avenues are possible to free themselves of advertiser money, and consumers who value their work need to support them in that endeavour if they truly want to see the back of shitty ads, as it’s clear now that even ad-blockers aren’t immune to the temptation of ad-money. Paid subscription and merchandising models have been around for a long time, and user-donation models such as Patreon are on the rise. Despite the laws of self-interest, it seems consumers when given the option to decide for themselves what content is worth, actually do want to see creators get a fair deal. I know I do, and whenever I’m able to make up for my use of Adblock Plus by paying out of my own pocket for the things I like, I do so. I think it will be for the mutual benefit of both creators and consumers going forward for this trend to continue. Not so much for the advertisers or the ad-blockers, but hey, we’re all just looking after our own interests.

So long as there exists something in the world to be sold, advertising is probably never going to die, but I for one wouldn’t mind seeing its influence diminished as much as possible in the future.

…That was this week’s OpinionatedDavid!!! Check back tomorrow for a new VuePoint!!!

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