Ad blocking

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Revision as of 18:27, 14 December 2017 by Tepples (talk | contribs) (Tracking blocking: Read the Docs behaves like Daring Fireball in this respect)
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This is a mini-rant, a short essay refuting a common misconception among users of an Internet forum. If you think this essay is FUD, feel free to explain why on the essay's talk page.

Acceptable ads

Some people seek to block all advertising just because it's advertising. Others recognize that advertising is necessary to keep many for-profit websites in business. So they define some criteria for "acceptable ads" that they won't block. For example, Eyeo's popular Adblock Plus extension ships with a whitelist of ad-supported publishers that pledge to meet Eyeo's criteria.[1]

Some people refuse advertisements that are animated or use technologies likely to lead to unwanted installation of malicious software. During much of the 2000s, SWF (Adobe Flash) ads were very strongly correlated with annoyance. When SWF ads first appeared in the 2000s, some people made a point of putting ad servers that host SWF ads in the computer's hosts file. Later, browsers gained the ability to make SWF objects click-to-play, first with the Flashblock extension and then with built-in features to limit plug-ins to sites on a user-maintained whitelist. One could block SWF ads with a clear conscience, as it was blocking a media type rather than a publisher's livelihood. This became especially useful as malware authors began to use exploits in Adobe Flash Player to infect users' devices.

But starting in the early 2010s, mobile platforms incapable of playing SWF ads became popular, especially Android and Apple's iOS. As advertisers saw the usage share of browsers on so-called post-PC devices rise, ad networks shifted from SWF to DHTML, HTML5 audio, and HTML5 video, and blocking animated ads without blocking still ads or legitimate uses of HTML5 technologies became that much harder. This led to a growth in popularity of browser extensions specific to blocking ads. Some publishers counteracted by deploying anti-ad-blocking scripts to detect sites that are not allowing ads to load.

Some people define acceptable ads as those that don't access third-party servers. This pretty much requires each site to sell ad space directly to advertisers rather than through an ad network, just as each newspaper had to sell its own ad space in the print era. Locally served ads are harder for viewers to block but also harder for a site owner to sell, in part because major ad networks have built a reputation for a large audience, which reduces transaction costs, and accurate view and click statistics free of padding. See tips.

Alternatives to advertising

As of 2016, there are two proven revenue models for information publication: subscriptions and advertising. Subscriptions work for "sticky" sites, those whose intended use case involves long or repeated visits. But they drive away users who find a document through a shared link or a web search but aren't interested in a long-term commitment to the particular site it's on. One article claims that there is no third business model to pay writers and bandwidth bills.[2] But some critics see professional writers as acceptable collateral damage in the battle against abusive Internet advertisements and the fake news and conspiracy sites that ads fund.[3] One has sarcastically recommended that the best third business model for a site depending on short visits is to leave the information publication industry altogether and become a meat butcher.[4] Let's assume for a moment that the structural unemployment associated with a sudden across-the-board shutdown of the industry is impractical.

One suggested third model is pay-per-page. If a publisher were to try to implement pay-per-page by becoming a merchant accepting major credit cards, it would be wiped out by the credit card networks' swipe fees. Bitcoin is not practical for pay-per-page either, as the groups in China that control the majority of the networks mining power have driven up transaction fees close to those of credit card networks and refuse to expand the network's capacity beyond about three transactions per second.[5] By August 2017, transactions were taking over three days to confirm.[6] It remains to be seen how well the Segregated Witness (SegWit) extension, introduced in August 2017, will increase transaction rate and decrease transaction fees. So if no viable microtransaction provider emerges, then perhaps the way forward is to make subscriptions portable by creating a subscription network that multiple publishers can join. A user subscribes to one site and enters through the side door on others in the same network, and these other sites get paid per page view. Several adult entertainment sites used to be part of such a network called Adult Check back in 2000 or so. Later attempts at a subscription network include Google Contributor, Optimal,[7] and Another is SatoshiPay, which acts as a middleman on top of the Bitcoin network and allows top-up through Bitcoin payments or, for people who don't currently use Bitcoin, by signing up for the Coinbase exchange.

Enter the DMCA

There's a legal conjecture going around that "anti-adblock" code, used by some websites to block access users of ad-blocking browser extensions, meets the definition of an "access control" mechanism in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (17 USC 1201). Under this theory, the anti-anti-adblock rules in ad blockers are an illegal "circumvention device".[8] If a court upholds this, developers of ad blockers are faced with what Stack Overflow users call an "XY problem". This refers to trying to solve a problem with a particular solution and asking about that solution, when another solution to the original problem might work better.[9] The solution to an XY problem is to step back and "describe the goal, not the step."[10]

Alternatives to blocking

Understanding what users expect to get out of ad blocking may help Internet security tool developers replace intentional circumvention with plausible deniability.

Some people block ads to stay within Internet data transfer quotas established by ISPs. This is especially true of subscribers to cellular and satellite ISPs in the United States, which charge on the order of $5 to $15 per GB of data (source:; But as of 2016, most web browsers don't make users aware of how much data even an ad-free document uses.[11] One possible solution is to have the browser pause the connection after every megabyte of data is downloaded and ask whether the user wants to continue to load more data on that document.

Another reason to block ads is to save CPU and RAM, especially on resource-constrained mobile devices. A lot of sites have video ads on articles that aren't video. Playing them uses CPU and RAM that could better be used for other things, such as not thrashing swap on a PC or not purging other applications or other documents open in tabs from memory on mobile. The same is true of the "real-time bidding" scripts that ad exchanges use, which have the user's machine contact a dozen different ad networks and show the ad offered by the highest bidder.

Tracking blocking

Some users block only ad networks that track users from one site to the next, using tools such as Ghostery, Disconnect, Privacy Badger,[12] and the tracking protection built into the Firefox web browser.[13] The ostensible use here is to block tracking; blocking ads is only a side effect. A few websites serve ads that do not track viewers across sites, such as Daring Fireball[14] and Read the Docs.[15] Users of tracking blockers see these ads without problem.

However, several anti-adblock tools confuse tracking blockers with ad blockers, and they block tracking blocker users rather than using ad replacement[16] to serve alternate self-hosted ads that don't track the user. WIRED is particularly notorious for blocking tracking blocker users:[17] it has an article reviewing Disconnect,[18] but users of tracking blockers see instructions to disable Disconnect.[19]

When you see a notice that a site forbids use of ad blocking software, follow these steps:

  1. Disable anti-adblock and open Firefox in Private Browsing mode, which enables tracking protection by default.
  2. Visit the site again.
  3. If you still are detected as using ad blocking software, especially if the site specifically mentions Private Browsing, look for contact information, such as a support form or e-mail address.
  4. Reword the following to correspond to your situation.
  5. Send the inquiry.

Subject: Mistaken activation of anti-adblock notice

I'm using Mozilla Firefox without any ad-blocking extensions. Instead, I'm using the tracking protection built into the Private Browsing mode of Firefox. Yet NAME_OF_SITE misdetected me as using an ad blocker instead of showing self-hosted ads.

Firefox tracking protection is not primarily an ad blocker. If a web publisher sells advertisement space directly to advertisers and hosts these ads from the same domain as the rest of the site, tracking protection allows the ads to be displayed. Examples of sites using self-hosted ads include Daring Fireball and Read the Docs.

I admit that Firefox tracking protection has a side effect of blocking ads served by third-party ad networks and ad exchanges. This is because third-party ad networks and ad exchanges track viewers' behavior from one website to another in order to attempt to match ads presented to each viewer to that viewer's interests. But if NAME_OF_SITE displayed self-hosted ads when the ad network or ad exchange cannot be reached, ad blockers wouldn't eat into revenue nearly as much.

In other news: I'm interested in advertising on NAME_OF_SITE. How much do you charge to host an ad?


  1. "Allowing acceptable ads in Adblock Plus". Accessed 2016-02-16.
  2. "Adblockers say, 'Find a better business model.' But can you really? BlockAdblock, 2015-10-12. Accessed 2016-01-15.
  3. BarbaraHudson
  4. bingoUV
  5. Mike Hearn. "The resolution of the Bitcoin experiment". 2016-01-14. Accessed 2016-01-15.
  6. vt_dev. "Bitcoin is broken.. 3 days 0 confirmations". 2017-08-23. Accessed 2017-08-23.
  7. Jacob Salmela. "Ethical Ad Blocking: Have Your Pi And Eat It, Too.". 2016-01-01. Accessed 2016-01-18.
  8. "Adblockers don’t break the law. Except when they do." BlockAdblock, 2016-07-13. Accessed 2016-08-07.
  9. Gnome et al. "What is the XY problem?". Meta Stack Exchange. Accessed 2016-08-07.
  10. Eric S. Raymond. "How to Ask Questions the Smart Way". Accessed 2016-08-07.
  11. "Adblocking and its dangerous arguments – Part II". BlockAdblock, 2016-06-11. Accessed 2016-08-07.
  12. "Adblocking and its dangerous arguments – Part I". BlockAdblock, 2016-05-15. Accessed 2016-08-07.
  13. Security/Tracking protection on Mozilla Wiki
  14. "New on Daring Fireball: Display Ads". Daring Fireball, 2017-07-12. Accessed 2017-10-21.
  15. "Ethical Advertising". Read the Docs. Accessed 2017-12-14.
  16. "3 ad-tech terms you need to know: 'Ad reinsertion', 'ad recovery' & 'ad replacement'". BlockAdblock, 2017-02-27. Accessed 2017-10-21.
  17. Doc Searls. "An invitation to settle matters with @Forbes, @Wired and other publishers". 2016-04-15. Updated 2016-06-29. Accessed 2016-08-07.
  18. GeekDad Guest Writer. "Plug-ins for Privacy: Disconnect and Adblock". WIRED, 2011-01-28. Accessed 2016-08-07.
  19. Damian Yerrick. "Taste the #hypocrisy." 2016-05-04.