P081: On Ad-Blocking and Incentives

In a move that was surely meant to check all of my boxes, prominent developer, writer and podcaster Marco Arment published a provocative article titled “The Ethics of Modern Web Ad-Blocking.” Arment draws a line from the bad old days of pop-up ads to today’s less-obtrusive but potentially more sinister ad networks that track your every move in service of even-more-targeted advertising. He believes that we have reached the point of no return when it comes to user hostility from these entities:

I’ve never been tempted to run ad-blocking software before — I make most of my living from ads, as do many of my friends and colleagues, and I’ve always wanted to support the free media I consume. But in the last few years, possibly due to the dominance of low-quality ad networks and the increased share of mobile browsing (which is far less lucrative for ads, and more sensitive to ad intrusiveness, than PC browsing), web ad quality and tolerability have plummeted, and annoyance, abuse, misdirection, and tracking have skyrocketed.

Publishers don’t have an easy job trying to stay in business today, but that simply doesn’t justify the rampant abuse, privacy invasion, sleaziness, and creepiness that many of them are forcing upon their readers, regardless of whether the publishers feel they had much choice in the matter.

Modern web ads and trackers are far over the line for many people today, and they’ve finally crossed the line for me, too. Just as when pop-ups crossed the line fifteen years ago, technical countermeasures are warranted.

Arment is not alone in this thinking. John Gruber, Jared Spool and Craig Mod all agree, and if that list sounds very Mac-centric, it’s because the call for improved ad-blocking is coming from Cupertino. While garden-variety extortion schemes like AdBlock Plus have been around for a while, Content Blocking in Safari is coming in iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan (the next versions of Apple’s mobile and desktop operating systems). As stable beta releases are becoming available, more people are experiencing tracking-free browsing for the first time, which inevitably leads to declarations of performance bankruptcy and other bouts of navel-gazing from publishers.

Regardless of how you feel about ad-blocking[1], it’s a fun exercise to examine the motives at play. Apple bangs the drum of privacy as a key point of differentiation compared to their two biggest rivals, Facebook and Google. Apple then makes it trivial to block content and interactions either owned by or intrinsic to these competitors. Because it’s Apple, the public will be able to implement ad-blockers without needing a neck beard and display advertising will continue the inexorable race to the bottom. And if independent content producers get lost in the shuffle, well, there’s always the sharing economy.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron


[1]: My hot take: it’s going to literally decimate businesses producing independent content but eventually the industry will shift to whatever’s next, probably just Facebook sharecropping