AdBlock: a breach of contract with web owners? or pragmatic necessity?

by Sniffer | posted on 13 May 2009

Does anybody actually use ad blockers? Apparently, not. It's been categorised as something less than a Perfect Storm: a spat between two Mozilla addon writers, over whether adverts by web sites are part of the contract between the site owner and the reader. And it seems it's really not a big deal - yet.


Here's the question which seems to have been left un-asked: What's the cost to the reader of running adverts? We have asked the other questions... but this may be a new one. And for the mobile user, it's already a consideration: megabits cost megabucks over the air.

The fight between ABP and NoScript is a pretty bog-standard "open source" type spat. It started as a high-minded ethics debate, on ars technica. It caught the attention of Don Marti who pointed out that right now, the fuss is out of any proportion. He reckons nobody (within normal error margins) actually uses adblock software:

Bruce Perens makes two arguments against web ad blocking in an LWN thread. First, users should comply with a norm that a user of an ad-supported resource will view the ads. Second, if enough users block ads, advertisers will stop supporting the standards-based web and move their ad money to some locked-down, DRM-infected proprietary system, for which there can't be a Free Software client.

This, Marti went on, is an empty threat:

You've been able to get an easy ad blocker for all the common browsers and platforms longer than you've been able to get BitTorrent or an Apple iPod. Users could start ad blocking with a quick download and a few clicks when Google was still The old ad blockers were not elite hacker stuff. Try that proxy auto configuration thing. Easier than installing and configuring a Firefox add-on today. Or if you have an old Macintosh handy, CNet still has what I think is the last version of WebWasher for trial download. Most of the ad blockers were much easier to set up than lots of software that did catch on.
The IT Media and IT bloggers are suckers for two stories, in their many forms. Give them New Invention Will Enable Internet Rapscallions To Destroy Established Order or The Mainstream Media is Doomed and they're hooked. So, naturally, AdBlock Plus is a story. But the fact is that ad blockers have had plenty of time to catch on, they've been easy and accessible enough to catch on, but they just haven't caught on.

 So, back to the question unasked: who actually pays for running adverts on a web site? Obviously, the advertiser! - but it's free, otherwise, especially for the readers, right?

Well, maybe not. Most of the posts on the lwn site, seem to be based on the assumption that the cost to the user visiting the site is zero, or trivial. My tests suggest this is entirely wrong.

The reason I use ABP is simple; it saves me a lot of download AND - more important - electricity. The problem is that the big players aren't just putting up a simple graphic any more. They're loading our systems.

Some sites are extreme. If you go to Fox Business, you can actually watch Mozilla Firefox start to rack up the cpu cycles. It downloads video after video; and while one is playing, the robot stuffs another six down.

The site's assumption is that my PC is a free playground for its advertisers; and that it is entitled to my cycles. But when it gets to the point that my PC is actually cranking its cpu up to the max, and turning its fan on to keep cool, and I can see my ADSL traffic rising as well, then the word "abuse" comes to mind.

Small, amateur sites such as NoScript aren't guilty of this, of course; but we can't ignore reality. Right now, as Don Marti points out, almost nobody blocks adverts, and the storm is a mouse-sneeze in an egg-cup.

But the trend suggests that sanctimonious sermons about the "ethics" of allowing adverts (and this means both pro and con!) are irrelevant. If people find themselves upgrading their hardware to run adverts, and spending money on power to run adverts, and paying an ISP premium to run adverts, then eventually the penny will drop, and ad blockers will become standard.

It's an issue which the rogue downloaders will have to be confronted with. Civilized behaviour isn't automatic; and we need to be ready to enforce it if, and when, things get out of hand.

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