Ad Blocking Software: Fair or Unethical?
A dvertising can be irritatingly annoying at times — especially via the Internet. They can pop up without warning. They can start with no prompting from you. They can interrupt your experience of enjoying content while significantly negatively affecting the speed of your access to the Internet…
…so you get yourself a software application program designed to block advertisements from appearing. Activate it; and you can enjoy reading articles and viewing videos on the Internet seamlessly while virtually eliminating all aspects of advertising.
That is the solution — right?!?
Ad Blocking Software: Fair or Unethical?
“Quite simply — if people don’t pay in some way for content, then that content will eventually no longer exist,” said John Whittingdale — who is the secretary of state for culture, media and sport in the United Kingdom — according to this article written by Jane Martinson of The Guardian. “And that’s as true for the latest piece of journalism as it is for the new album from Muse.”
Whittingdale has “vowed to set up a round table involving major publishers, social media groups and adblocking companies in the coming weeks” in order to address and do something about the problem.
The problem is rather pervasive, as in the effort to provide content, advertising is used to subsidize virtually everything from articles to videos posted on the Internet; but the advertising can be intrusive and sap significant resources from your computer. This has resulted in a controversial war between those who support and oppose software application programs which block advertisements — both of whom claim that they are acting in your best interests.
Even worse that traditional computers being bombarded with power-hungry solicitations are advertisements sapping precious resources on mobile devices, which are usually not as robust as traditional computers — and are heavily reliant on limited battery power. The results of tests as conducted by staff of The New York Times — according to this article written by Brian X. Chen — concluded: “For a number of websites that contained mobile ads with a lot of data, web page data sizes decreased significantly and load times accelerated enormously with ad blockers turned on. The iPhone’s battery life also improved — but more modestly — with ads removed.”
PageFair is a leading provider of counter ad block solutions to Internet web publishers; so it is no surprise that the position taken by PageFair is against software application programs which block advertisements. Here are some statistics provided by PageFair in partnership with Adobe Systems, Incorporated from this global report — which is a downloadable file in the Portable Document Format — called The Cost of Ad Blocking released last year:
- Ad blocking estimated to cost publishers nearly $22 billion during 2015
- There are now 198 million active ad block software application program users around the world
- Ad blocking worldwide increased by 41 percent in the last 12 months
- Ad blocking in the United States increased by 48 percent to reach 45 million active users in 12 months up to June 2015
- Ad blocking in the United Kingdom increased by 82 percent to reach 12 million active users in 12 months up to June 2015
Precedent of Action by the Federal Government
Although not exactly the same issue as what readers face today when accessing content via the Internet, a settlement with “spammers” using pop-up advertisements was announced from the Federal Trade Commission of the United States back on Monday, August 9, 2004 — meaning that there is a possibility that some of the advertising which readers seek to block could be in violation of federal law:
An operation that used a feature called the “Windows Messenger Service,” which is part of the Microsoft Windows operating system, to barrage consumers’ computers with pop-up ads for the pop-up blocking software they sold has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that their marketing methods violated federal laws. The FTC alleged that the defendants’ pop-up ads appeared as frequently as every 10 minutes in the forefront of consumers’ screens, caused consumers to lose data and work productivity, caused applications to freeze, and caused some computers to crash. The settlement bars the defendants from sending Windows Messenger Service pop-up advertisements, selling Windows Messenger Service pop-up blocking software, or selling Windows Messenger Service pop-up sending software. It also prohibits instant message advertising, requires an opt-out mechanism for other kinds of Internet advertising, and bars them from using deceptive return addresses in their e-mail and other advertisements.
Despite computers today being exponentially more powerful than in 2004, the problem of “losing data and work productivity, causing applications to freeze, and causing some computers to crash” is still happening today because advertising has also become more robust in its use of technology over the years.
Policies and Viewpoints From Providers of Digital Content
The promotion of technologies to circumvent displays of advertising is prohibited on FlyerTalk. “FlyerTalk is a free site, and is entirely supported by advertising revenue”, explained Paul O’Brien, who is the community manager of FlyerTalk for Internet Brands and is known as FlyerTalk member IBobi. “In a very real sense, viewing ads is the way the FlyerTalk community supports the platform on which the community exists.”
O’Brien noted that not only are ad blocker software application programs not always accurate; but they can also potentially cause problems for the end user. “An important consideration also, is that ad blockers are not very nuanced”, he said. “They ‘guess’ at what elements of a page are ads, and they block the user from seeing them. They are sometimes not very good at guessing, and end up blocking site functions such as graphical buttons. And then those users — who may have forgotten that they have software installed in their browser that is changing the intended user experience — report that lack of functionality to FlyerTalk as a bug, which sends our tech staff to chase down down what’s wrong with the site, only to find that it’s not on our end at all, it’s on the user’s end. And valuable technical resources that we should be using to solve real issues, or build new site features and upgrades, are lost.”
Addressing advertising which can interfere with the FlyerTalk experience, “There are occasionally malfunctioning ads on the site, and with a community as large and as active as FlyerTalk, these ads are reported to me, often within minutes”, assured O’Brien. “We take these reports seriously, and endeavor to block or correct the bad ads as quickly as possible.”
With a different point of view — citing that both InsideFlyer and BoardingArea are “the fruits and labors” of the common traveler — “we have always supported the choices that our fellow travelers make for themselves”, said Randy Petersen, who is the founder of both Internet web sites. “Bottom line: we engage with our readers on their own terms. These are the types of decisions that define who InsideFlyer and BoardingArea is to the traveler and while these types of decisions are hardly discernible in the bigger picture, we try hard to not stray from our roots.”
I was initially surprised when Christopher Elliott admitted to me during a recent telephone call that he had not yet established an official position pertaining to software which blocks advertisements. After all, he has written articles for a number of traditional media outlets which also have a digital presence on the Internet — including USA TODAY and The Washington Post as two examples — as well as his own weblog as a consumer advocate, which includes this article written by Jennifer Finger, who asked readers if it is time to block the ad blockers.
“It is not the best idea,” Elliott said; “but as a reader, I want to read what I want, when I want. I am on the side with the consumer — no one should tell me to look at their ad.”
His readers apparently agree: of the 491 readers who participated in the informal poll as part of the aforementioned article written by Jennifer Finger, 90 percent of those participants voted that software which blocks advertisements should not be blocked.
Two possible solutions to the ad blocking software conundrum as offered by Christopher Elliott are “corporate sponsorship similar to public broadcasting” — The New York Times does sponsored sections well “because it looks like real journalism” — and a “subscription-based model user pays for content”, as “people will pay for things they are interested in.”
Elliott estimates that if digital content providers switch from a free model to a subscription model, as much as 50 percent of the readership may initially be lost; but some will return, again citing The New York Times as one example. “What kind of information are people willing to pay?” he asked.
I asked Elliott about a concept known as native advertising where solicitation of products or services inconspicuously either bears a similarity to the news, feature articles, product reviews, entertainment, or other content which surround it; or becomes a part of the content itself — similar to product placement in a television program or a motion picture where the advertisement can be part of the entertainment or story without being such a nuisance. “Truly evil,” he responded, as native advertising is “not always well disclosed despite FTC rules.” He further points out that people do questionable things when it comes to native advertising; and that, of course, led to a discussion regarding articles of weblogs containing links to affiliate credit cards as if they were part of the article — a practice reviled by many people.
Click here for the list of guidelines for businesses pertaining to native advertising as provided by the Federal Trade Commission.
For the record, I am not opposed to the use of software which blocks advertisements from appearing — despite being a provider of digital content. I too get irritated when an advertisement suddenly appears with loud music while blocking what I am currently viewing, promoting a product or service in which I have absolutely no interest while simultaneously significantly reducing the speed of my connection to the Internet.
Nothing in life is truly for free. Advertising has long been the preferred method of providing content to you without you having to pay for it — at least, not directly. Television commercials are the main reasons why you can view shows and movies on network and local channels free of charge — and have been able to do so for decades…
…although I never did like the model used by cable television, which charges a significant fee every month to watch channels which are flooded with advertising anyway. The parameters and reasons why do not matter to me — I just do not like the general practice of paying for something in which I have to suffer through a barrage of commercials; but I digress as usual.
I find it amazing every year when there is interest in advertising during the Super Bowl. I have always believed that if advertisements and commercials were more entertaining, useful and interesting while simultaneously less annoying, interrupting, obtrusive, and do not inhibit the speed of access to the Internet, perhaps people would not mind them to the point that software application programs to block them would be necessary. That is where the answer to this conundrum resides, in my opinion.
There needs to be a compromise where producers of digital content still have a financial incentive to continue working on providing you with content without you having to pay for it in terms of money, Internet speed or exasperation. Advertising companies need to pay more attention to the content they provide and how they present it in order to sell products and services to their target markets — and do so as inconspicuously as possible while still getting the message across.
Speaking for myself — regardless of what you might think of it — I work hard to provide content to you which you hopefully find to be useful, interesting or entertaining. Although I may not always be successful, I try not to use “click-bait” to lure you into clicking on articles which I have written. I have never earned a single penny from credit card affiliate links and have no plans to engage in this controversial practice in the foreseeable future. I virtually never use my membership in the forums on either FlyerTalk or InsideFlyer to promote The Gate. With very few exceptions, I pay for all of my travel out of my own pocket. The only revenue I receive for writing articles for The Gate is through advertising; so every single click on my articles absolutely helps — and I thank you for your support…
…but as a reader, what do you believe would be a fair and equitable compromise in which you could get and enjoy the content you want — while the entity providing it to you can survive financially?
Illustration ©2016 by Brian Cohen.