Can we call a truce in the war over ad blockers?
I’ve just taken the Internet one step closer to financial ruin. Furious over an Internet site that coated the screen of my Galaxy S6 with annoying advertisements, I finally installed an ad blocker on my smartphone, after using one on my PC for years.
So I’m eating into the profits of an advertising-supported website. Yet as it happens, I work for a company that runs an ad-supported website. It’s a bizarre conflict of interest that could leave me selling pencils on a street corner, unless Internet advertisers and consumers can work something out.
PageFair, an Irish company that helps bypass ad blockers, claims that 419 million smartphone users worldwide are running the programs — one-fifth of all smartphone users. For now, hardly any of them are in this country — only about 2 percent of us have an ad blocker on our phones, compared with about 15 percent who have them on desktop computers.
Still, this means a lot of lost revenue. Optimal.com, a maker of ad-blocking software, estimates that programs for desktop and mobile will take a $3.8 billion bite from websites in the United States this year, and as much as $12 billion by 2020. The Googles and Facebooks will barely feel it, but such losses pose an existential crisis for many newspaper and magazine websites, and for advertisers too. So they’re fighting back, not always fairly.
Look what they’re trying to do to Brave. That’s the new browser and advertising network being developed by Brendan Eich, a cocreator of the Firefox browser. The Brave browser can block all ads, except those delivered through Brave’s own network. Such ads must use very little bandwidth, and may not contain tracking cookies that could threaten a user’s privacy. That way, pages load faster, and the ads don’t drain a mobile user’s monthly data quota. Brave gets a cut of the ad revenue, but it shares 15 percent with end users, in effect paying them to look at ads.
It’s a shrewd plan, but in April the Newspaper Association of America had its attorneys send the company a menacing letter that essentially argues that Brave isn’t really an ad-blocking service. Instead the NAA said Brave will merely substitute its own chosen ads for those that websites displayed on its browser would normally show. Brave would make a bundle from selling these ads, while websites and nonparticipating advertisers would be frozen out. The NAA represents about 2,000 papers, including the Globe.
“It ultimately takes away publisher control,” Paul Boyle, the NAA’s senior vice president of public policy, told me. “It’s deceiving the consumer.”
Brave flatly denied the claim, insisting that it wants to work with advertisers and websites, and will not display unauthorized ads on any site. No matter. The NAA repeated the charge two weeks ago in a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, urging the agency to investigate Brave and other ad blockers.
The NAA also teed off on Adblock Plus, the most popular ad-blocking program, but this time its argument is stronger. Adblock Plus doesn’t block everything; certain ads that are deemed “acceptable” are allowed to pass. The company’s standards seem reasonable. For example, ads must be clearly marked as ads, they can’t cover more than a quarter of the screen, and they can’t automatically play music or a video. But some companies have gotten onto this “whitelist” after making sizable payments to Eyeo, Adblock Plus’s Germany-based creator.
“What they’re doing is operating a kind of a shakedown,” said Boyle. Show Eyeo the money, and your ads will suddenly become acceptable enough to bypass Adblock Plus.
Eyeo spokesman Ben Williams rejected the insinuation.
“There is no pay-to-play, and we make that very clear,” he said. Yes, Williams acknowledged that about 10 percent of advertisers — the industry’s biggest players — pay a licensing fee to be added to the list.
Still, there’s potential for abuse here. Williams tacitly admitted as much, when he said that Eyeo now plans to set up an independent panel, including people from the ad industry, to decide which ads get whitelisted.
Boyle said the NAA has no interest in trying to ban ad blockers altogether. Meanwhile, Williams said Adblock Plus has no desire to eliminate all Internet ads, since that would drive hundreds of popular sites out of business. Sounds like there’s room for compromise here.
So let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me. Some sites show messages that ask us nicely to add them to our ad blocker’s whitelist. I’ve begun to play along. If the ads aren’t too annoying, I’ll leave them on the whitelist, and help a journalistic brother out.
If a few million of us did this, we’d help prop up the industry’s good guys, while sending an unambiguous message to the producers of ugly, gaudy bandwidth-wasting promos: No, we don’t hate all ads. Just yours.