Theft, hypocrisy, and online advertising
不知彼、不知己，年戰必殆。 —— 孫子
Hi. My name’s Paul, and I’m a thief and a hypocrite.
I’ve been using ad-blocking of some kind for years and years—since at least 1998 or so, or since online advertising started to get intrusive. I used to use filtering proxies—first Proxomitron, then Privoxy—but more recently I’ve been using Firefox with the AdBlock Plus extension. Firefox is buggy, leaky, and has terrible font rendering, but AdBlock is the killer application for me. On the rare occasions when I end up using a browser without ad-blocking, I find it a disturbing experience. Flashing banners and animated sidebars do draw the eye, but that’s exactly why I dislike them. They distract and detract from the content itself. If online advertising had always been of the Google text ad variety, I might never have started blocking ads: I actually find the context-sensitive text ads on Google’s search results very useful, for example; often, they are more useful than the actual results. I don’t have an ideological objection to advertising.
When I mentioned at work today that I block ads in my browser, a colleague accused me of two things. First, theft; second, hypocrisy.
The theft accusation particularly surprised me. I share the notoriously loose attitude of my generation towards paying for stuff online. But still, theft? I fast-forward through adverts on recorded TV programmes. Is that also theft? If I picked up a free newspaper and had my hypothetical butler compile a digest of only the content, would that, too, represent theft? And does that still apply if the content or service is only partially ad-supported? If I travel on the Underground with my eyes turned to the ground, studiously avoiding the adverts on the walls of the stations and the carriages, am I cheating someone?
There is, admittedly, an important difference between the traditional and online advertising spaces: metrics. Online, what matters is not how many people potentially saw the ad, but how many actually clicked it. You can find abstract, brand-building, aspirational double-page spreads in magazines. They demand no immediate return. Generally, there is very little of that in online advertising. As most advertising is pay-per-click or -conversion, I could also be said to be stealing by not clicking on the ads—but that’s patently absurd, surely.
By avoiding advertising, perhaps I am breaching some kind of implicit contract—‘we give you this good in exchange for you paying attention to the advertising’—but that presupposes the existence of such a contract. Perhaps I don’t believe in it, and that’s why I feel no guilt in breaking it.
In my opinion, you can’t realistically demand certain behaviour from a person to whom you give something for free online. You might wish for it, but there is no entitlement. There is no contract. All you can say is, ‘we give you this good and hope that you will use it in a way that helps us to make money.’
The hypocrisy argument is easier to accept. I work for a company that makes some of its money from online advertising and hopes to make increasing amounts from that source.
If I turned off ad-blocking, I could pretend that the issue doesn’t exist, and enjoy freedom from that particular cognitive dissonance. However, here’s an interesting statistic: at present, the single most popular extension for Firefox is AdBlock Plus, according to the official Firefox extension site. As I recall, it was at about sixth place in the list a few months ago.
Granted, Firefox is not the most popular browser. And most Firefox users probably aren’t using AdBlock Plus. But people are blocking ads, and their numbers appear to be growing.
How will it all turn out? I can think of a few scenarios. In the first, ad-blocking continues to be a minority pursuit. Those who block ads enjoy the free content without the drawback of intrusive ads, but their numbers are small enough that online businesses are not significantly adversely affected. Most people still see ads.
The second scenario is essentially the Tragedy of the Commons: initially, a few people avoid advertising, and benefit at minimal overall cost. As their numbers increase, the availability of the good—in this case, free content—decreases, as ad-based online businesses cut back or fail.
In the third scenario, online businesses respond to the blocking threat. If your business model hinges on irritating people, too bad. If you are merely tainted by association, I have more sympathy. But there is no automatic right to a profit. The challenge for online businesses is to give something to the user that is useful to them and profitable to the business. In some cases, this probably means things that aren’t traditional advertising.
Personally, I don’t see ad-blocking going truly mainstream any time soon, but I’d still like to see more of the kind of things I mentioned in the third scenario. Finding an effective revenue model may be difficult, but excoriating people who use your content in their own way isn’t a solution per se.
That Chinese quote at the top is from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. It says, ‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.’ Perhaps I’m a hypocrite. But if I am, I think I know the enemy well.