Blocking Ads Isn't Stealing

With iOS 9, released yesterday, Apple allows developers to create content (read: ad) blockers on their incredibly popular and influential mobile and tablet platforms. A few have shot up the lists of best-selling apps after only a day of availibility, which has ignited a conversation about the ethics of turning off advertising. Here’s my take.

Advertising is built on the idea that your life is lacking. It’s not as bad as it sounds. We all need help surviving and working toward a more perfect version of ourselves. We need clothes and food and shelter and the like. Advertising helps us exist. It shows us our potential; it points us toward the things we need to build a life. Advertising isn’t going anywhere. It needs no defenders, no moralists to speak up for its right to exist.

So I don’t understand all the hand-wringing over ad blockers. The first thing I did after installing the updated operating system on my iPhone was install Crystal, a free (for now) and basic ad blocker. Websites started loading faster and looking better. Surfing on my iPhone suddenly felt great. Then I moved on to Marco Arment’s Peace, which adds the ability to whitelist certain sites so I can see their ads.1 It seems to load sites even faster. Nice!

Last night on Twitter, Zac Cichy and @eric_analytics2 tried to goad me into admitting ad blocking is stealing. Zac’s tweet in particular was pretty darn annoying:

Zac’s a smart guy but that’s just plain stupid. “Breaking a car” is nowhere near related to what we’re talking about here. I’m not breaking anyone’s website. The analogy would only work if I accessed a site’s server and turned off the ads from there, and then went through their content and changed every instance of the word “Internet” to “frothy cheese-like poo garden.”3

Ad blocking is not stealing. Full stop.

When I block ads, all I’m doing is taking control of what my browser loads and how it loads it. I have an excellent browser extension installed on my Macs called User CSS by Kridsada Thanabulpong. It lets me change the layout and design of any site I please, kind of like Greasemonkey or Stylish. For something like a decade now I’ve been using extensions like these to make sites look and act the way I want them to on my computers. Brett Terpstra’s long-ago redesign of Pinboard is a great example of what you can accomplish with CSS in a browser.4 That’s not stealing. It’s also, technologically, no different from blocking ads and trackers.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s walk down the road of those who would say that controlling what content loads in your browser is stealing. I think it goes something like this:

  1. Publishers put content on the web for free
  2. Advertisers pay publishers for access to their audience
  3. If the ads don’t load, advertisers will stop paying publishers
  4. Content read without ads is therefore stolen

If you go for a drive and don’t look at the billboards, did you steal the highway? If you leave the room to get a snack when commercials play on television (or Hulu or whatever) did you steal the program? If you read a magazine and ignore the ads, did you steal the article?

No, no and no.

But, Jon! In those cases the ad still got delivered! Well, sort of. Maybe it had more of a fighting chance, but it still didn’t actually work.

Online ads have gotten out of control. They’re heavy, they’re invasive, and they make browsing the web worse. There are many, many outlets that will be crushed when content blocking takes off in a big way. Here’s the thing, though: web advertising is already a shitty bargain for publishers to make.

The reason you see so many ads load at once on so many sites is because they don’t pay very well. Publishers seem to think the answer to diminishing returns on ads is…more ads! I’m no economist but that sounds a lot like publishers are driving down the value of their own content big time. The value of those ads is already approaching zero.

On top of that they’re aggressively user-hostile. They gray out the page or take you to a splash screen. They cover up huge swaths of content or even paper over every image on the page. Worst of all they flip you out from the browser and into the App Store to buy something. And yes I have seen sites load all of these at once. Enough.

Browsing with ad blockers on mobile is a breath of fresh air. Sites load fast and take me right to the content I want to see. No bullshit. That publishers made a Faustian bargain to peddle terrible, obtrusive content isn’t my problem.

Now, Zac and Eric argue that I should simply not visit the sites that are bad actors. The logic doesn’t hold up: it assumes the audience is there to load ads first, not to read content. There are ways to count visitors besides running ads, and I having an audience can still hold a huge amount of value for publishers.

I think suggesting people not visit sites with terrible ads gets it backwards. Those sites shouldn’t publish their sites in a way that turns away readers. I get that this is a touchy subject. It suggests a scorched-earth, Darwinian outlook toward the Internet. But the fact is the web puts incredible technological tools into the hands of readers. Sites will have to adapt. And if we’re honest we know they won’t all survive.

We, as readers, are free to load whatever aspects of a site we choose. The web is developed in public; every last piece of content created, from words to images to CSS, can be viewed, dissected, hidden and even copied. This environment has its drawbacks, but it is also fundamental to the explosion of the Internet. It’s what the web is.

As to this site… Over the years I’ve tried a few different forms of advertising. I’ve sold sponsored posts, I’ve been in multiple ad networks and I’ve used affiliate links.5 These tended to cover most (but usually not all) of my meager costs.6

The truth is the candler blog isn’t my full-time job, so I can afford to let it float along without content (or ads) for stretches of time. No ad network has ever paid me well enough to turn this into a career, and I’ve always been opposed to weighing down the site with multiple ads that get between readers and my words. Does that mean my writing has no value? I don’t think so.

Advertising will be fine. It has beaten back threats before and it will come through ad blockers too, probably even better than it was before. As long as people need stuff, they need to be advertised to. That’s why it’s such a huge business.

As John Gruber said back in July, “A reckoning is coming.” Reckoning is one word; humbling is another. Whatever you call it, it’s here.

Oh and if you use my affiliate link to buy Peace I’ll get a little something. Much appreciated.

  1. Marco has a recent piece on the ethics of ad blocking, but he’s been talking about advertising for years↩︎

  2. Honestly I don’t know what his name is past Eric but he’s good Twitter people (usually). Funny how you strike up relationships with people whose identities you only partially know. Also, why always so late at night, guys? I was too tired to get into it. ↩︎

  3. Heh. ↩︎

  4. Here’s my own Pinboard mod↩︎

  5. For more on this site’s history with advertising, see here and here↩︎

  6. This past March, Carbon Ads dropped me as a publisher because I wasn’t pushing enough traffic. I got a form letter telling me as much, which was a little annoying since, when I joined Carbon it was still called Fusion, and they were very transparent and, well, human. I didn’t fight the change; I just removed their ad block from the site and have been running the site ad-free ever since. ↩︎