By Jesse Schooff
August 18, 2016
Article from Jesse Schooff
Blocking Ad-Blockers: The War for Our Attention Span
Last week, Facebook announced a new slate of advertising policies and features for its eponymous social media platform. The point in the announcement that garnered the most headlines, however, was the statement that Facebook was going to start circumventing users’ ability to use ad-blocking software. (As of August 11th, Adblock and Adblock Plus had already figured out how to work around Facebook’s ad-blocking countermeasures.)
Ad-blockers are programs which do pretty much what you’d expect: they scan content loading into your web browser and block any elements which look like – or are known to be – advertisements. For those of us who use ad-blockers, they’re a godsend. It’s no secret that throughout our daily lives, online and offline, we are continually bombarded by every manner of advertising. Transit ads, billboards, TV commercials, radio jingles, street posters, spam email… just to name a few. When it comes to the web browser, though, advertisers have taken their already-potent methods and weaponized them.
Here’s a few major issues with the state of in-browser advertising which have prompted some to use ad-blockers:
Privacy Concerns: Looked at some clothes in a online store recently? Or were you considering a trip, only briefly? You may notice that those potential purchases are now going to follow you around the Internet. Every other page will have targeted ads encouraging you to buy that dress you looked at, or coaxing you to go on that trip (“it’s on sale now!”). This is revealing in that it shows a glimpse of exactly how much advertisers know about us: our preferences, our habits, what websites we visit. While every modern web browser has a “Do Not Track” feature which asks websites not to track you, obeying the setting is purely voluntary.
“Data brokering” as it’s called, is a huge business, whereby firms use a number of sources (companies you may be a customer of, scraped web content, public records) to compile data on consumers in order to serve more effective, targeted ads. While ad-blockers may not be totally effective at stifling data-brokers from tracking you on the web, at the very least, they will prevent the same ads from creepily stalking you at every website.
Security Concerns: It may seem hard to believe, but ads can actually put malicious software onto your computer. This year alone, major publications such as Forbes, TMZ, and the New York Times have all inadvertently served some sort of malware ads to their readership (including ransomware, which locks users’ computers until they pay a ransom fee). In an ironic turn of events, the Forbes incident happened during a push by the publication to encourage their users to turn off ad-blockers.
So how do these incidents even happen? In part, it’s because ads are served by third-party sites, rather than the publication website itself. This means that it’s possible to use various malicious methods to inject the so-called “malvertising” into otherwise trustworthy pages. The web page you’re visiting isn’t exactly compromised, it’s just unthinkingly serving up the next ad from a queue on another site.
Ads Unbalanced to Content: Everyone has their own individual concerns and pet peeves about online ads, but for the folks I know, nothing quite gets them rip-roaringly, frothing-at-the-mouth mad at being forced to watch an unskippable, minute-long advertisement before they may watch that twenty-second long video of a cat being cute, or a skateboard trick, or a truck crash. Seriously, advertisers, this gets people very angry.
It’s also worth pointing out that, in a telecom marketplace where providers charge us by the amount of data we download, forcing users to play video ads means that users are paying to watch ads. That’s not really acceptable.
Moving Ads on Static Content: Lastly, my own personal axe to grind, and the reason I started using ad-blocking software years ago: continously moving ads within static content. From my standpoint, there’s nothing more aggravating than trying to read a news or magazine article while a video or animation incessantly plays right next to the text. Reading static content with looping video on the side is like trying to sit quietly and read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace while a toddler jumps up and down next to you, screaming, “HEY! HEY! LOOK AT ME, MOM! LOOK AT ME!”
Your concentration is shot, your retention is nominal. Why? Because the ad is working exactly as designed: The advertisers don’t want you to read the article, they don’t want you to retain the content – they want you to look at the advertisement, and to remember their product pitch.
Some will argue that by blocking ads, we’re robbing content creators of potential revenue. I’ll agree that is concerning. I’m a content-creator myself, so I feel strongly that content should be valued, and that creators should be reimbursed, and many good alternatives and diversification for revenue streams exist. Though it needs to be said: blocking ads is not theft. As Matt Ingram at Fortune points out, no one stomps their feet and accuses us of stealing when we mute the TV (or simply go to the kitchen for a snack) during a commercial break. No one calls us thieves if we don’t fully read every advert in the newspaper or magazine we’re enjoying. Ad-blocking is a feature built into our brains, and arguably, it helps keep us sane.
Advertisers have aggressively leveraged technology, in order to force users to watch ads; to make it near-impossible to ignore ads; and to have ads that watch us back, infringing on our privacy. But when users leverage technology to level the playing field by installing ad-blockers, the advertisers cry foul.
It’s my sincere hope that eventually, we’ll reach an equilibrium where ads are not tremendously obtrusive, support original content creators, and don’t compromise our security and privacy. Until then, I’ll keep using my ad-blocker, and I know many others will do the same.
Are you looking for a good ad-blocker? Check out some suggestions below:
It’s by EFF, but it only works in Google Chrome and Firefox
Works in most browsers except IE/Edge (is unrelated to AdBlock Plus)
Works in all major browsers, but allows advertisers to pay for certain ads to be unblocked
Jesse Schooff is a Volunteer Content Creator for OpenMedia. Born in Toronto and raised in Vancouver, Jesse studied music composition at UBC. For the past 13 years he has been the systems administrator and IT help desk for a small Canadian company. He has a lifelong passion for politics and technology, and is a vocal advocate of tech security, digital rights, and the open internet. You can read more of his stuff on his blog at GeekMan.ca
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