The folks at Tom’s Guide have asked me to weigh-in on a controversy: is using an ad blocker stealing, or more generally, is it immoral? For me, this is just an interesting diversion, but for them, it’s about their livelihood. As most everyone knows, advertising revenue is the backbone of many Internet services. By blocking ads, viewers are directly impacting people’s income.
Those who claim that ad blockers are theft argue that blocking ads takes money out of people’s mouths, that ads are the price we pay to view content, and that people who use ad blockers are either snobs or sociopaths. But none of these ring true.
First off, every economic decision I make takes money out of someone’s mouth. My family doesn’t eat fast food and because of that, someone at McDonald’s probably works fewer hours. We are currently staying at my in-laws for two weeks. If we had rented a hotel room, we would have easily covered an employee’s entire paycheck. The market is about choice. If we denigrate someone’s using that choice, the whole edifice collapses.
Seeing ads is not “the price we pay” for visiting a website, in part because prices are a negotiation. Price is the encapsulation of all the information relevant to the purchase (see chapter 7 of my book Adam Smith’s Pluralism for more on this). The buyer looks at the price, and accepts or refuses based on relevant value and desire, and then the seller responds by lowering or raising the asking price. There is no negotiation with web traffic; there is no actual communication.
Ad blocker opponents might disagree arguing that refusing to go to the site is a form of negotiation, it’s just the slow workings of the market. But there are two issues with this objection. First, there is no way for the content provider to distinguish between someone refusing to visit because of bad content and walking away because of the ads they encounter. Second, this approach actually justifies ad blockers. If seeing ads were really the price we paid to access a webpage, it would be inaccessible if we didn’t pay it. Mark my words: the web is going to get better ad technology. Sites will be able to detect blockers and then prevent access to those who use them. New technology that benefits the consumer begets newer technology that benefits the seller. This is how the market works.
Of all the comments against ad blockers, I find Martin Bryant’s ad hominem-filled diatribe the most baffling; he’s the person who argues that people who use ad blockers are snobs because they don’t like seeing ads or are sociopaths because they “take delight” in lowering a company’s revenue. Is he really claiming that taking pleasure in getting a good deal is sociopathic? Forget baseball, shopping for the best price is the true American pastime. With that one comment, he dismisses most American commercial activity.
And why is caring about how things look snobbish? Should I be okay with an Exxon sticker on the Mona Lisa? We’ve all been persuaded that the invasive channel logo superimposed over television shows is non-consequential, but the distraction makes me want to scream. It is one of the many reasons I no longer watch television. Human beings are aesthetic creatures. We like beauty. Why should demanding it from the web be considered snobbish, especially given the amount of time we spend perusing it?
The most compelling arguments I have heard against ad blockers come from Avram Piltch. He reports that ad blockers charge companies to let certain ads through and that places like Google and Amazon pay as much as 30% of their revenue to get past Adblock plus. I didn’t know this, and having access to this revenue is probably why Google and others are thinking about creating their own native ad-blocking apps.
Yet this isn’t blackmail as he suggests. Instead it’s only problematic because most users don’t know that their ad blockers are really ad selectors. Users are being sold a bad bill of goods. What Piltch really objects to is passing on the cost from the consumer to the cost of the business; ad blockers make working on the internet more expensive.
This, ultimately, is my conclusion. Ad blockers are no different than any other product. The same rules that apply to other commercial transactions apply to them. They are not theft and they are not immoral, but they are certainly shortsighted. The big companies will not go under because their ads are blocked, but the small ones will. If we undercut start-ups, mom and pop businesses, or the other independent voices, they will no longer be around as alternatives to the mega-companies. We will be forced to read everything on the Huffington Post or CNN, and never encounter the challenging voices that take us to newer and more interesting places.
In the email asking me to consider this topic, Piltch asked me if there was an implied contract between site and viewer that made it morally obligatory to view the ads. It’s a great question, but the answer is “no.” It is certainly true, as Geoffrey James writes, that “advertisers have paid the content owners for a chance to convince you to click on their ad.” But advertisers haven’t paid the viewers, they’ve paid the content providers. Any contract is between them and visitors have no legal or moral obligation to participate in a contract they are not parties to.
All of this reveals how companies have set themselves up to be victims of ad blockers. iTunes and Microsoft have set up their terms of service so that they always will win, no matter what. The Huffington Post doesn’t pay its contributors a cent, keeping its profits away from struggling writers. Nike and other brands demand that we pay for the honor of wearing their logos on our chests even though they should pay us for turning our bodies into their walking advertisements.
In the quest for profit, in their downsizing for efficiency and stock dividends, in the machinations to make all human activity into consumer activity–Tinder and Grinder have even figured out how to commodify one night stands–these companies have declared consumers to be their adversaries. All we are to them are resources to exploit. As a result, it’s irrational for us to care what happens to them except insofar as it affects us. They set the terms of the game. We just play it.
Ad blockers do have a human cost. They affect people’s lives and business in negative ways. They aren’t theft and they aren’t immoral, but also aren’t a very nice thing to do. The thing is, no one cares. Why should we? When have any of these businesses ever actually cared about us? In the end, we have no empathy for businesses because businesses have no empathy for us.
2 comments on “Is using an Ad Blocker stealing? [Reader’s Question]”
The question of the ethics of ad blockers was one I took up in a computer ethics class I taught about a year ago. Here are links to the relevant blog posts in the event you're interested:
Dear advertising company and/or website. Suck it.