Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon


tech 8 min read

For as long as there have been ads, there have been ways to avoid seeing them.

Technology has kept pace on both sides, but ad-blocking has never really become mainstream. It remained the domain of the tinkerers, who knew about browser extensions at the very least, or proxies, or hosts files. Extensions were as approachable as blocking has ever been, but the vast majority of normal (i.e. non-technical) people probably don’t go anywhere near them. And so the ads were always seen.

Things are starting to change. Legislation, public perception, and consumer-focused functionality have all woken up to issues of privacy, intrusive tracking, and our never-ending exposure to advertising.

We’re slowly realising that we have options, and that we should perhaps begin to exercise them.

With the recent release of iOS 9, Apple has brought the matter into the public eye – or at least the section of the public that pays any attention to technology news. The App Store now offers content blockers, which are conceptually plug-ins that can tell the Safari browser not to load certain URLs. The most common scenario is that a long list of ad-serving domains are prevented from ever loading, thus making most ads vanish from the web pages you visit.

Fair enough; this has been coming for a while. The issue being hotly debated is how we should feel about it.

I’m a reader of countless sites, and I’m the author of exactly one. My writing is my full-time profession, and income derived from it is the only income I have. I don’t have a day job. I’m not financially independent. I’m not starving by any means, but I’m personally poorer than I’ve been in a long time. My income hasn’t been this low since I was a student.

I also find advertising intrusive and annoying. I do run a blocker, both on the Mac (Ghostery) and now also on my iPhone (Purify). I’m on both sides of this debate.

Let’s get the obvious argument out of the way: if you block ads, you’re depriving sites of revenue they presumably need in order to continue running, and if too many people do that, those sites are likely to go away. The reality is more complicated, but the argument is essentially sound – all other things being equal, and unchanged.

In order to work out why people are angry about blockers – beyond the simple reality that people are taking their content for free, and bypassing their means of compensation – we have to look to the think-pieces sprouting daily that try to introduce a moral element to the issue. The moral angle says that ad-blocking is in some sense wrong, and is akin (and tantamount) to theft. Theft is probably morally wrong in most circumstances, thus we have our conclusion.

But that’s some intellectual sleight of hand.

It may be correct for you, if you agree with the assumptions it makes, but it’s still a crooked argument for not addressing those assumptions. So let’s briefly do that. The two main assumptions being made are of implicit contract, and of implicit consent. And they’re big ones.

The assumption of implicit contract says that, by visiting a web site, you accept – and must accept – whatever is displayed there. Whatever they put on the site, you have to be willing to see. It turns out that that’s a pretty difficult argument to sell. Consider the question of intent: when you visit a site, what are you looking for? What are you going there with the expectation of finding?

Say I want to get a puppy, so I’m off to PuppyFind dot com (yes, it’s a real thing). My intention is something like this: I want to be able to find puppies. If I can’t, well, fair enough; my mistake. I’ll go somewhere else.

That’s my entire intention. Now, it’s reasonable for me to expect that the site requires a revenue stream. It’s reasonable to expect that there’ll be some way to monetise my presence there. But that’s it; that’s where the line is. In every other context in life, I get to choose whether to participate in the resulting transaction. With advertising, though, you’ve made the decision for me – in fact, several decisions: the means, format, and currency of exchange.

It’s the last one that’s particularly troubling. Without even giving me the chance to opt out, you’ve declared – as soon as I stepped in the door, and before I’ve looked around – that I owe you the currency of attention.

Now, yes, if you asked up-front how people want to compensate you for providing your content, you’d lose the bulk of your visitors. Letting them in the door for “free” is a necessity, so they can see the wares on offer. But you chose to make the content free in that sense. You decided to leave the door open, then presented a bill the moment I crossed the threshold. I didn’t agree to anything.

It muddies the waters of that moral angle you were so sure about a minute ago, doesn’t it?

Then we’ve got implicit consent. This is an issue that’s played out to tragi-comic effect here in Europe, with the ubiquitous “We use cookies, and we’re going to assume that’s OK if you keep using this site” notices that sprang up during the last couple of years. They’re a ludicrous piece of legal ass-covering that sadly mask a very legitimate complaint: that you can’t possibly have already consented to the stuff that sites do from the very moment you arrive.

Things like tracking you, via centralised analytics, and retargeted advertising. Inferring interests and demographics from your browsing habits. Sharing that data with others. Those sorts of things.

You hit a site, a cookie is set, and from that moment onwards – blockers notwithstanding – you’re not anonymous anymore. They might not know who you are yet, but they do know that you’re you. Your consent to this process has been assumed. In their view, you’ve given it implicitly, simply by visiting. Try to construct a real-world analogue of that situation, and you quickly see how there can be no ethics-based defence of the practice.

You can always go elsewhere, of course. You can close the browser tab, or do another search. You’ve lost nothing, and you’re gone. Except that neither of those statements are true.

You have lost something, and not just time: you’ve lost a period of attention, and that’s the only actual currency you should be measuring with. You’re also still there; a ghost of yourself, lingering behind in a row of a database, ready for wider correlation – or reanimation upon your next visit.

When you look at it like that, advertising (and whatever the tracking gleans) doesn’t actually pay for the content you consumed. Actually, the content repays you for what was already taken.

And maybe that’s OK. It’s up to you. We’re all aware of what advertising is, and how it works – but I just want you to really think about the nature of the transaction, and your lack of say in every aspect of it. I want you to think about how they rig the whole game by reaching into the pocket of your mind and your identity before you’ve read paragraph one, or even clicked the Play button.

Advertising as a monetisation method means payment in advance.

Murky, murky waters. If someone tries to sell you a moral argument against ad blockers, pause and step back. They either haven’t thought it through, or there’s a vested interest at work – because advertising in the form it takes on the web simply doesn’t fit into an ethical framing.

We’ve made this little war for ourselves, of course, just like every one before. Advertising is inherently hostile and self-sabotaging, in that it competes for your attention with the actual thing you want to see. There’s a huge mental context-switch involved in noticing, comprehending, considering, and then either dismissing or acting upon an ad. You’re being pulled from the material you wanted to read or view, not just visually but cognitively too. The closest analogue is someone shouting at you to distract you from what you’re doing.

The business side of online advertising is also a very sketchy thing, based on wilful misrepresentation; impressions have almost no real value, and the ad-buying industry is waking up to that fact. Ad blindness is very real. Personally, I click on perhaps one ad for every several thousand I scroll by. Most, I don’t even glance towards. You’re the same – statistically. Yet those “impressions” are being paid for by someone.

We were always going to find ourselves on this particular field of battle. Privacy is one issue, and distraction is another, but the core problems of implicit contract and consent are the common foundation. Ad blockers getting into mainstream feature-lists are simply the natural escalation of advertising’s inherent tension. They push, and we push back. I could be talking as either a publisher or as a reader here.

Once again, negotiations are underway.

Sites are of course free to pursue the usual arms race of blocking the blockers, and indeed to prevent blocker-using visitors from seeing their content. I think it’s going to lead to a lot of people reconsidering the actual value of what they’re (trying to) view on the web, and I think that’s a very good thing for people’s attention. Not so much for a certain category of site.

For me, interest is fleeting, and if there’s a barrier in place, I’ll usually just move on. Perhaps you’re the same. There’s always somewhere else to get your news, or see a video, and the majority of things shared are readily skippable. Those sorts of low-interest, high-churn sites don’t have the intrinsic value to make me want to view an ad pre-roll on a video, or to disable my content blocker. I’ll just shrug, move on, and eventually learn to not even follow links to that site. It’s inevitable.

Other mechanisms of monetisation are available, but they usually rely on users being invested enough in your content to take the perceptually very difficult step of committing real money (instead of notional views or clicks) to you. That’s impossible for a great many publishers, because of the type of content they provide.

It’ll be a very tough sell for the majority of people, who just want a quick hit of free content that they barely care about, on sites that they don’t really care about at all.

If those users embrace content blockers on a large scale, the low-intrinsic-value sites are going to suffer enormously, and will have to resort to increasingly user-hostile means (blocker-blocking, self-hosted ads, etc) to continue to sell the fool’s gold of ad impressions.

I continue to advocate respect for the reader, and supporting what you love, but I’m in a privileged position and I know it. I get to make the simplistic (and even ethical) arguments because my situation allows it. It took thirteen years of graft, then one Christmas I finally received the wonderful gift of viable sanctimony.

Sponsorship, membership (which many of you generously participate in), and donations all require reader loyalty, and a desire for the site to stay alive. Those things are rare.

Many content providers (horrible term, but it’s useful) are squarely targeting the mass audience who desire only momentary distractions. That means low-value content that’s usually not unique, and that means there’s no credible monetary value proposition for the reader. Thus, passive monetisation is needed, in the form of ads – which only erode the reading experience, and indeed further damage any sense of the content’s own value.

When it then comes time for the reader to make a decision about continuing to visit the site in the face of aggressive advertising and blocker-blocking, well… it’s an easy choice. You just go somewhere else instead.

It’s human nature. We cannot find equilibrium without first oscillating between every degree of opposing extremes. We’re pathologically unable to take the shortcut. We’ll be talking about blocker-blocker blocking in another year or two. Partly because people just don’t think through the issues that led to this arms race in the first place, but also largely because we just don’t care.

Ad-serving sites are being faced with a crisis entirely of their own making. They defined their own value – and their terms of engagement – right from the start.

Now, as ever, those assumptions are coming back to bite them.