WEB & TECH / FEB. 18, 2015
version 4, draft 4

Can the Internet's Free Market Solve the AdBlock Plus Problem?

It is estimated that approximately 144 million web browsers have some sort of incarnation of advertisement blocker software. One of the most popular ad-blocking browser add-ons is AdBlock Plus, which accounts for more than one-third of the market.

The purpose of this extension is to allow Internet users to avoid obnoxious ads, skip through the endless ads on YouTube and other video sharing websites and prevent a potential virus from infecting our computers due to advertising malware. Although it makes the web surfing experience clean, crisp and fast, the question has been put forward: is it ethical to maintain this type of browser add-on?

Unethical AdBlocker?

Geoffrey James, contributing editor at Inc.com, recently published an article entitled "Using An Ad Blocker Is Unethical,". In the article, he averred that using a service like AdBlock Plus is unfair, as it hurts the content creators because ads help pay writers’ salaries and cover the costs of owning and operating a website.

"The way I see it, the content was posted with ads, which are how the content providers (authors, editors, publishers) get paid. Because ad blockers reduce the value of those ads (because few people see them), by blocking ads you’re making it harder for those people to make a living," wrote James. "Put another way, online ads are the ’price’ you should be paying for reading that content. Subverting the display of the ads is getting something of value (the content) without paying for it (seeing the ad), which is a textbook case of unethical behavior." 

Annoying Ads

His article’s premise drew the ire of many who say that ads are too invasive and loud, and the digital marketing industry should attempt to solve this problem through the means of innovation. Also, what about ad-blocking on cable television? Remember, ads are indeed the price we pay to get certain things for free - Amazon is considering an ad-based online stream in the same vain as Netflix that would be free.

The whole concept of advertising - both online and offline -could change in the coming years.  

It was reported that a group of students have developed an application that blocks advertisements and brands in real life. Essentially, it works similar to AdBlock Plus but for the offline world.  Labeled as "Brand Killer," It’s a helmet that uses image processing to recognize brand names and logos that blurs them out. It’s meant to permit people to become "blind to the excesses of corporate branding."

Advertisers Fight Back

The technology of eliminating advertisements on the Internet is relatively new, but Google and other companies are beginning to take action against developers. 

According to the Financial Times, Google, Amazon, Taboola and Microsoft are paying AdBlock to unblock their ads. The specifics of the deal have not been made public, but these companies are attempting to curtail the widespread adoption of AdBlock by paying Eyeo, a German firm that owns the software, to omit their ads from the blocking service. 

Ostensibly, Eyeo earns revenues by permitting certain companies to pay to be a part of its whitelist of advertisers. The list does maintain a criteria of "acceptable ads," such as ads that are not annoying, do not disrupt the page content and are effective without being pervasive. 

"Of course, we understand that advertising is the economic engine that drives the Internet and gives us free websites and great content. But as click-through rates continue to decline, many online advertisements have regrettably become obnoxious and obtrusive and annoying in a desperate effort to be heard," said Eyeo in a statement. "In turn, hundreds of millions of consumers have responded by installing ad-blockers, which further depresses click-through rates. The vicious cycle worsens. We want to reverse the cycle." 

The Free Market Solution

Can the Internet’s free market solve this problem of blocking ads, especially considering that consumers don’t want to pay directly for content? Well, there are a number of ways the digital advertising industry can bring about resolutions. For example, a recent PageFair study (via Tech Times) discovered that users are more inclined to accept ads if they’re not obtrusive.

Perhaps another method that the online advertising market can implement is the creation of an AdBlock blocker. So far, there hasn’t been any invention of it because this software hasn’t been much of a problem, until now. Think about it: 144 million missing eyeballs on a product or service.

There is no doubt, however, that most websites depend upon a minimal amount of advertising revenues. From newspapers to blogs, from search engines to non-profit entities, if AdBlock becomes even more prevalent in the near future, a certain amount of cuts or eliminations will need to take place. Digital newspapers already realize online ad revenues or paywalls do not suffice, and newer ways of generating money will need to be sought out.

"I feel confident in saying that newspaper print advertising will decline again in 2014, most likely in the high single digits again. Digital advertising will continue to muddle along with a slight increase," wrote Joshua Benton of Poynter.org. "The key question for 2014 is whether circulation revenue gains can continue. It’s the only thing providing meaningful resistance to that ad decline." 

It all comes down to this question: are readers willing to pay a subscription or simply view ads?

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