In the Adblockers jungle
Blackmail, judicial procedures and big business: when website editors come to term with ad blockers.
30%. That is the percentage of French internet surfers using ad blockers, according to a study conducted by IAB and IPSOS published on the 9th of March. It did not take long for the press to react, with, for most internet media, the following message: “Adblock is threatening the internet’s balance by attacking the website editors’ finances.” Ad blocking would question the viability of the independent internet based on publicity, and no paper could find hard enough words to describe Adblock’s economic model: big websites pay to be “whitelisted” by the app, while the regular process consists in letting users evaluate the “acceptability” of their ads.
Is Eyeo, the editor of Adblock Plus, really this greedy and hypocritical firm that fools web users and jeopardizes the internet by cutting back the funding of those who refuse to pay?
What does Adblock Plus actually earns? Hard to know. Available information pieces contradict each other and spokespersons don’t communicate on what they earn. They barely admit that they “have good results even if their economic weight is ridiculous compared to Silicon Valley firms”. Ad blocking is based on a system of evaluation by an unpaid community and the 10% of publicity content providers are “invited” to pay, while having the possibility to go through the free process.
It is this policy – necessary for Adblock to pay its servers and its staff – that is denounced as blackmailing by the internet press and advertising people. Alleged blackmailers merely shrug their shoulders. Till Faida, CEO of Eyeo, explains that the critic success of his program shows that they are here to defend the web users’ will. And when he is asked about the so-called “racket” of big editors, he presents this system as a way to look for an economic model based on viable compromises for everyone while his less-known competitors just block everything with no distinction. As for the accusation of con by the web users who expect a total removal of publicity, Eyeo replies that a functionality allows to ignore the “whitelist” and to block any commercial with no distinction.
Google, an unexpected allyAmerican internet giants do not share the press hatred of Adblock. Google admitted paying 15 million dollars to see its ads “whitelisted” and the Adblock community agreed not to filter the search engine’s ads, considered not too intrusive or annoying. Since then, Google never tried to impede the ad blocker’s progress. In fact the latter does not represent a real threat and can even become an advantage. Because if an advertiser sees its ads blocked everywhere, it can be tempted to use the Google Adsense service to benefit from its “diplomatic immunity”. Facebook and its integrated ads is more or less in the same position, and they don’t have any interest either in declaring a war to Adblock.
So for media websites, there are only two ways to react: going to trial or fighting back on Adblock’s field. The first solution is hardly fruitful, so content editors recently switched to the second one. Almost all press websites in France coordinated to block the access to their content for two weeks to Adblock users. The web pages would send a message inviting users to switch to the non-free version or to remove their ad blocker. The text of these blocking messages went from the fair denunciation of Adblock to the pedagogical message aiming at “opening the eyes of the public on the dangers of ad blocking software”.
This initiative, carried by the GESTE (group of online services editors), was moderately appreciated by the users. Even if they did turn-off their ad blockers, they mocked the press group’s strategy responding to Adblock’s “blackmail” by taking the web users hostage.
Beyond the question of responsibility and actor’s good or bad faith, this sparring mostly illustrates how fragile the foundations of the web’s business model are. The massive use of Adblock proves that users are annoyed or irritated by ads. Omnipresent, often ugly and generally invasive, they lost their vocation which was to convince the client and to only get some visibility. It is no longer about giving the client a good image but simply to be visible in the ad magma that the user is unwillingly facing.
Among advertisers, the phenomenon is presented as an economic necessity and some mention a tacit contract between sites and users: the content would be available in exchange for an acceptance of publicity. Television channels’ model is presented as a success where for their own sake and for the model to persist, users have no control over the ad’s presence. Before Adblock, the internet could work the same way. But the massive arrival of programs deleting ads are messing things up. For now, media and communication professionals see it as threat from a “virtual delinquent” and refuse to see the phenomenon behind Adblock.
The fact that a majority of people have a bad image of ads and don’t wish to see any goes against the very principal of publicity which is supposed to appeal. The increasingly low level of advertisement has been tiring people for a long time and the market maintained itself by taking advantage of the public’s inability to influence the content it was exposed to.
Of course, this general question is not really about media websites, their main problem being to have enough money to exist. But after years of –difficult– living thanks to a system based on nothing, they are the one who can change things. New economic and advertising models can appear and offer less mediocre content that could stop being considered a nuisance.
The Brave search engine, developed by a former Mozilla employee, offers for instance to replace invasive ads by “acceptable” ads, reversing then the money and financing themselves in the process. This project raises other questions, like who should decide which ad is good and which is bad. But this type of initiatives has at least one merit: it underlines the fact that it is illogical for the internet to be based on ads that no one wants, except the advertisers themselves.