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.
Video and Flash
Some people define acceptable ads as those that don't move and don't download excessive data. As home Internet access shifted from dial-up to broadband in the 2000s, there was a growing preference among advertisers for "rich media" ads that cover a document's text, automatically play audio, or move around in a manner that distracts the viewer from the document he is reading. These rich media ads also need to be downloaded or streamed to the viewer's device, which causes problems for viewers behind a satellite or cellular ISP that imposes a "cap," or monthly data transfer quota. For satellite and cellular ISPs in the U.S. market, the overage penalty for exceeding a cap is near $10 per GB, making it expensive to view documents whose ads have a large data size. (Sources: Exede.com; Verizon.net; Ting.com)
Some people define acceptable ads as those that don't cause a mobile device or older PC to drain its battery or struggle to keep up. Compared to still ads, animated ads use more CPU time, which uses more energy and slows down other tasks that the user is performing on the device, and more RAM, which could cause a system to thrash swap or force the system to purge other documents or applications from memory.
Some people define acceptable ads as those served using technology that comes with the web browser. In addition to being strongly correlated with the annoyances of rich media during the 2000s, the SWF (Adobe Flash) plug-in has had numerous vulnerabilities that led to unwanted installation of malicious software (malware) on viewers' devices. 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 protecting a device from a hazardous media type rather than blocking a publisher's livelihood, and publishers were expected to fall back to HTML ads if Flash Player could not start.
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 large or animated ads without blocking still ads or legitimate uses of HTML5 technologies became that much harder. This shift away from SWF, combined with CPU and RAM constraints on mobile devices and overage penalties on cellular data plans, led to a growth in popularity of browser extensions specific to blocking ads.
Displaying ads without a third party 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 fraudulent padding. (See tips.) But despite the difficulties, sites such as Daring Fireball and Read the Docs have adopted this more print-like approach.
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 viewers 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. 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. 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. 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 well over those of credit card networks and refuse to expand the network's capacity beyond about three transactions per second. By August 2017, transactions were taking over three days to confirm. 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, and Webpass.io. 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
To keep their livelihood going in an era of ad blocking, some websites have added "anti-adblock" code to attempt to block access by users of ad-blocking browser extensions. There's a legal conjecture going around that anti-adblock 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 some ad blockers are an illegal "circumvention device". 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. The solution to an XY problem is to step back and "describe the goal, not the step."
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 a data quota. But as of 2016, most web browsers don't make users aware of how much data even an ad-free document uses. 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.
Some people using resource-constrained devices, such as mobile devices or older PCs, may block ads with video or heavy scripting to save CPU and RAM. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) launched the LEAN initiative in 2015 to tone down the data size and distraction of rich media ads somewhat. But even if an ad itself is lightweight, the associated real-time bidding process may not be. This has led some viewers to install a tool that disables client-side scripting entirely for most sites, using tools such as NoScript or uMatrix.
Because ads that track users also tend to have other annoyances, some viewers block ad networks that track them, using tools such as Ghostery, Disconnect, Privacy Badger, and the tracking protection built into the Firefox web browser. The ostensible use here is to block tracking; blocking ads is only a side effect. When websites serve ads that do not track viewers across sites, users of tracking blockers see them without problem. A site that normally uses third-party ads could in theory use ad replacement to serve alternate self-hosted ads that don't track the user.
However, several anti-adblock tools confuse tracking blockers with ad blockers, making no attempt to show self-hosted ads. WIRED is particularly notorious for blocking tracking blocker users: it has an article reviewing Disconnect, but users of tracking blockers see instructions to disable Disconnect.
When you see a notice that a site forbids use of ad blocking software, follow these steps:
- Disable anti-adblock and open Firefox in Private Browsing mode, which enables tracking protection by default.
- Visit the site again.
- 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.
- Reword the following to correspond to your situation.
- Send the inquiry.
- "Allowing acceptable ads in Adblock Plus". Accessed 2016-02-16.
- Hypothesis by bingoUV
- "New on Daring Fireball: Display Ads". Daring Fireball, 2017-07-12. Accessed 2017-10-21.
- "Ethical Advertising". Read the Docs. Accessed 2017-12-14.
- "Adblockers say, 'Find a better business model.' But can you really? BlockAdblock, 2015-10-12. Accessed 2016-01-15.
- Mike Hearn. "The resolution of the Bitcoin experiment". 2016-01-14. Accessed 2016-01-15.
- vt_dev. "Bitcoin is broken.. 3 days 0 confirmations". 2017-08-23. Accessed 2017-08-23.
- Jacob Salmela. "Ethical Ad Blocking: Have Your Pi And Eat It, Too.". 2016-01-01. Accessed 2016-01-18.
- "Adblockers don’t break the law. Except when they do." BlockAdblock, 2016-07-13. Accessed 2016-08-07.
- Gnome et al. "What is the XY problem?". Meta Stack Exchange. Accessed 2016-08-07.
- Eric S. Raymond. "How to Ask Questions the Smart Way". Accessed 2016-08-07.
- "Adblocking and its dangerous arguments – Part II". BlockAdblock, 2016-06-11. Accessed 2016-08-07.
- "LEAN". IAB Tech Lab. Accessed 2017-12-19.
- "Adblocking and its dangerous arguments – Part I". BlockAdblock, 2016-05-15. Accessed 2016-08-07.
- Security/Tracking protection on Mozilla Wiki
- "3 ad-tech terms you need to know: 'Ad reinsertion', 'ad recovery' & 'ad replacement'". BlockAdblock, 2017-02-27. Accessed 2017-10-21.
- Doc Searls. "An invitation to settle matters with @Forbes, @Wired and other publishers". 2016-04-15. Updated 2016-06-29. Accessed 2016-08-07.
- GeekDad Guest Writer. "Plug-ins for Privacy: Disconnect and Adblock". WIRED, 2011-01-28. Accessed 2016-08-07.
- Damian Yerrick. "Taste the #hypocrisy." 2016-05-04.