Blocked Ads, Clean Conscience
Firefox's ad-removal tool is its most popular add-on. Now its creator wants to let you use it ethically.
First, a confession: I read the Web without ads. For years now, I've been using Adblock Plus, a plug-in for Firefox that eliminates nearly every ad I encounter online. I understand the irony here; Slate and other publications I've written for make money from advertisements, so my blocking them is akin to an airline pilot siphoning fuel from his tank before he takes off. And now, by discussing the appeal of ad-blocking software in this column, you could say I'm making matters worse.
Still, it's time we talked about ad blocking. The practice is ferociously popular, and it isn't going away. According to Mozilla's stats, Adblock Plus is the most-downloaded add-on for Firefox, attracting more than 700,000 new adherents a week. In all, it's been downloaded almost 49 million times. The appeal isn't hard to understand. The first time I loaded up Adblock, it was like shooting my browser up with Bandwidth Growth Hormone. The software gave a speed-boost to everything I did online. In order to catch your attention, many Web ads are stuffed with complex animation and sounds. Keeping all those aliens dancing eats up a lot of your computer's resources, which is one of the reasons your machine's performance plummets if you open many pages that are stuffed with ads. Ad-blocking software prevents your browser from connecting to well-known advertising servers. This lets you load pages faster and devote more of your machine's processing power to important stuff, like playing Hulu videos.
I've heard many convoluted justifications for ad blocking—"it's my browser and my computer, so I can choose what I want to download"—but it's hard to make an honest claim that these programs are ethical. The Web is governed by an unwritten contract: You get nearly everything for free in exchange for the hassle of a few ads hovering on the periphery—and occasionally across the whole screen for a few seconds. Advertising probably supports a huge swath of the sites you regularly visit. It's obvious how rampant ad blocking hurts the Web: If every passenger siphons off a bit of fuel from the tank before the plane takes off, it's going to crash.
Fortunately, Wladimir Palant, the creator of Adblock Plus, understands this. This week, he offered an elegant, intriguing solution to the complications that his software has created. He calls it "an approach to fair ad-blocking," and it just might solve the impasse between ad-wary surfers and the ad-hungry publishers who resent them.
As Palant sees it, not all ads are bad; it's just the "intrusive and annoying" ones. At the moment, though, ad-blocking software makes little distinction between each ad. When you load Adblock Plus, you're asked to pick which lists of known advertisers you'd like to block (the lists are constantly updated to remain comprehensive). Though Adblock Plus gives you some ways to customize which ads or sites you'd like to allow, for most people, the software is set-it-and-forget-it—once you turn it on and choose a list, you no longer see any ads, whether or not they're intrusive and annoying—or keeping your favorite site in business.
Here's Palant's solution: Adblock Plus would keep track of which sites you visit often. If it notices that you're spending a lot of time at certain sites on which you're blocking ads, the software would give you guilt-inducing prompt, like, "The owner of this Web site indicated that no annoying advertising is being used here. Would you like to disable Adblock Plus on Example.com to support it?" If the user clicks "Yes," she begins to see ads on that site—but, importantly, she'll be able to shut down all the ads on the site at any moment if they begin to annoy her.
Palant argues that this proposal brings "balance" back to the Internet ad market. At the moment, either advertisers dictate what you see, or, if you install an ad-blocking program, you do. Palant's idea would have advertisers and users meet in the middle. Publishers would face a cost to running annoying ads. If they accept a spot that takes over the entire screen, they'll risk having a lot of users turn off all their ads, which they'll notice in lower click-through rates. But publishers will also see a benefit to running smaller, less flashy, and less processor-intensive ads. Ad-blocking users will be more willing to make an exception for their sites, which would mean better click-through rates for the advertisers that publishers do choose to accept.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.