Rights or Respect: the Ethics of Adblocking

More legal headaches for adblockers could be on the way, with a recent survey by Medianomics suggesting that high-traffic websites in the United States are at least willing to consider legal action as a potential solution. There have already been several unsuccessful cases against Eyeo in Germany, but their luck might well run out in the US, where legislators may be less sympathetic towards what has been called the new wave of piracy. The saber rattling may have already begun, with newcomer Brave browser recently being directly threatened for its unusual business model.

Moral Qualms

Regardless of whether it might or might not be a smart idea to turn to the courts or government intervention, is adblocking the same as pirating content on an ethical or moral level? To paraphrase everyone’s favorite DVD opening clip, you wouldn’t steal a car, so should you block an ad?

For many, the question of whether to block an ad is entirely new. Popular interest was piqued by a series of events last year, starting with the release of the 2015 PageFair-Adobe report, followed by Apple’s enabling of content blocking in iOS9 the following month. We had already predicted that this would mean a cold new world for advertisers, and were not surprised when the Peace adblocker shot to the top of the paid charts on day one of the iOS 9 release. In a double whammy, Google also loosened restrictions on adblocking, so that there are now several ways to block ads on both iOS and Android.
The press coverage and mainstream interest in browsing the web without ads built up to the point where South Park satirized adblocking, introducing 1.3 million viewers in the US to the idea.
And with this new popularity comes – for some – an ethical dilemma. Consider the reasons that Marco Arment, the developer of the popular blocker “Peace”, cited in his decision to remove his app:

Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit. Marco Arment

Some mistook this to mean that Arment had turned against adblockers, but he clarified his mostly pro-adblocking position in Accidental Tech Podcast episode 136 shortly after removing Peace and had previously written about the rights and wrongs of adblocking:

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. Marco Arment

After Arment made his decision, discussion of the ethics of adblocking exploded, with pundits and philosophers weighing in across the Internet. Back to Work podcast episode 239 focused on a long discussion between Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin about what adblocking means for publishers. Both podcasters agreed that “advertising as a whole has become too intrusive” and express their feeling that the business model of the internet is going to change, but have little sympathy for the complaints of publishers and advertisers, arguing that advertising is successful when it’s a good fit for everyone involved: advertiser, publisher and consumer.

What the Experts Think

A roundup of opinions from several ethicists on Digiday touches upon the idea of adblocking as a “defensive move” in an “environment that’s often hostile to readers”, then goes on to argue that it “benefits more people than it harms”, thereby satisfying utilitarianism. Finally, the article dismisses worries about how mass adblocking will lead to the demise of the prevailing Internet business model:

If too many people block ads, some currently free online material might no longer be free. That’s a natural result of the choices of a large number of consumers. Sara Baase

Tom Douglas, on the Practical Ethics blog, finds adblocking, “intuitively, to be somewhat less morally problematic” than piracy. He explores this by considering whether the “legally binding conditions” that apply to content consumption can ever be applied to viewing ads on webpages. Even if publishers could legally require visitors to view ads, he wonders whether the “significant cognitive, aesthetic and privacy-related costs” of advertising makes it unreasonable to expect users to accept them compared to the more straightforward financial cost of purchasing content. In the end, Douglas admits that, should publishers make it clear that visitors must turn off adblockers when accessing their site, then continuing to block ads would be “morally equivalent to piracy”, although he doesn’t go on to explore whether either of these is actually morally wrong.

Paying Attention

Also writing on the Practical Ethics blog, James Williams recognizes the increasing role of the attention economy in the dilemma, arguing that the “large-scale capture and exploitation of human attention” by advertisers is far from ethical, thereby justifying users in fighting back with adblockers. He sees competition over our attention as being fueled by design goals that are “petty and perverse”, fixated on metrics of attention that have no respect for our limited reserves of attention. Adblocking is far from a trivial trend or casual form of piracy for Williams. In fact, adblocking is a desperate and valiant struggle to redress the balance and regain control over our own minds:

We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like “annoying” or “distracting.” But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want.” James Williams

Williams thinks it’s okay to block ads because advertisers have hijacked our attention. In fact, he goes as far as to consider that it might well be a moral obligation to fight back against the culture of casual intrusion and topple the existing attention economy, forcing a systemic shift towards “better informational environments that are fundamentally designed to be on our side, to respect our increasingly scarce attention”.

Seeing Both Sides

Not one of the above thinkers gave much credence to the idea that there might be an implicit contract between websites and their visitors. The invisible nature of the third parties involved, unknown requirements and extensive intrusiveness of modern advertising were enough to put paid to any sense that publishers could expect users to feel obliged to view ads.
So advertisers and publishers might feel aggrieved by adblocking, but there isn’t much sympathy out there for them. It looks as though, by choosing to relentlessly pursue clicks and eyeballs, attention traders have found themselves on the wrong side of a war with their own audiences and consumers – a position which has to be seen as untenable, no matter what legal or technological solutions can be deployed.
PageFair’s stance on this is straightforward: publishers need revenue, but consumers need to be respected. But nobody has a right to consume content without being exposed to any advertising at all, especially when this will materially harm the content producer. Even though our technology is able to overcome adblocking and give the balance of power back to publishers, we are working closely with them to make sure that former adblockers are not overwhelmed by annoying or intrusive ads.
Adblocking companies might someday fall foul of legal challenges, but ordinary internet users should not be demonized as pirates or forced to endure an advertising system that has been spiralling out of control ever since the first pop-up.

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