Of all the controversies on the Internet, few bother people’s minds and wallets as much as the ethical debate around the use of ad blockers.
For those not in the know, ad blockers are a type of web browser plugin that stops adverts from appearing on websites. Among the most famous of these are Adblock Plus, Ghostery and NoScript, the latter two of which block other forms of content as well.
The media has long relied on advertising for a significant chunk of its revenue. Now that much content is available to consume for free online that reliance has only increased, and many independent content makers are also using advertising to support what they do.
As such it’s not surprising then that many complain about Adblock and similar tools. YouTubers whine about it, big corporations pay money to be exempt from it, and websites like OkCupid embed messages behind where adverts should be to chide users into putting their site onto a whitelist.
And into that breach steps Internet artist Darius Kazemi, with the launch of the Ethical Ad Blocker plugin for Google Chrome, described as follows:
“This extension provides a 100% guaranteed ethical ad blocking experience. The conundrum at hand: users don’t want to see ads, but content providers can’t give away content for free. The solution is simple: if a website has ads, the user simply should not be able to see it. This way, the user doesn’t experience ads, but they also don’t leech free content.”
Of course, part of the reason Kazumi can stage his protest so easily is because Tim Berners-Lee chose not to profit from his invention of the World Wide Web, instead giving away the technology for free as a public good.
But even laying that aside, Kazumi forgets a significant factor in ad blocking, or the blocking of scripts in general: cybersecurity.
The Internet, for all its charms, is laughably insecure. Indeed the web browsers we use everyday can be exploited to attack users without much hassle at all, in what is known as “drive-by downloads”.
To pull this off a hacker corrupts an advertising network by submitting a malicious advert to it. These ads are then posted on websites as well trafficked as the Guardian, the Huffington Post or Yahoo, attacking visitors often without their knowledge, and potentially disabling or hijacking their computer.
The other problem is privacy. Ad networks often scoop up vast amounts of data on a user as they move between websites, profiling them so they can more effectively choose which ads to display. And much of this is done not merely without consent, but without any notification at all.
Kazumi is of course welcome to claim payment for his work. But given the importance of the Internet in modern life it is unreasonable to expect anybody to abstain, and until the ad networks sort themselves out it is perfectly reasonable to protect yourself by turning on an ad blocker.
Image Credit – Advertising in Malmo, September 2007 by Mathias Klang