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What’s the moral difference between ad blocking and piracy?

On 16 September Marco Arment, developer of Tumblr, Instapaper and Overcast, released a new iPhone and iPad app called Peace. It quickly shot to the top of the paid app charts, but Arment began to have moral qualms about the app, and its unexpected success, and two days after its release, he pulled it from the app store.

Why the qualms? For the full story, check out episode 136 of Arment’s excellent Accidental Tech Podcast and this blog post, but here’s my potted account: Peace is an ad blocker. It allows users to view webpages without advertisements. Similar software has been available for Macs and PCs for years (I use it to block some ads on my laptop), but Apple has only just made ad blockers possible on mobile devices, and Peace was one of a bunch of new apps to take advantage of this possibility. Although ad blockers help web surfers to avoid the considerable annoyance (and aesthetic unpleasantness) of webpage ads, they also come at a cost to content providers, potentially reducing their advertising revenue. According to Arment, the ethics of ad blocking is ‘complicated’, and although he still believes ad blockers should exist, and continues to use them, he thinks their downsides are serious enough that he wasn’t comfortable with being at the forefront of the ad blocking movement himself.

In explaining his reasons for withdrawing the app, Arment drew a parallel between ad blocking and piracy. He doesn’t claim that the analogy is perfect (in fact, he explicitly disavows this), and nor does he take it to be a knock-down objection to ad-blocking (presumably he believes that piracy is also morally complicated). But he does think there’s something to the comparison.

Like Arment, I think there are considerable moral similarities between ad blocking and piracy. But, also like Arment, ad blocking seems to me, intuitively, to be somewhat less morally problematic. This raises an obvious question: what’s the moral difference?

To the extent that piracy is morally problematic, it is, I think, problematic because it involves accessing the intellectual property of another person without meeting the conditions that the owner of that property has placed on its availability. The content provider makes an offer of the form ‘I’ll let you watch this TV show (listen to this music, use this software,…) if you give me x’. The pirate then accesses the content without providing x, thus arguably violating the provider’s property rights.

A similar story could be told in the case of ad blocking. A content provider places a blog post, news story, product review, online catalogue or whatever on the internet, along with some web ads. Arguably, she thus implicitly makes the offer: ‘I’ll let you access this intellectual property of mine, as long as you also let me serve you the ads’. The ad-blocking web surfer then accesses her content without accessing the ads, thus arguably violating the provider’s property rights.

So what’s the difference?

One suggestion might be that the difference lies in the legal details. The law enables content providers to place legally binding conditions on which their content may be accessed, and piracy involves violating those legal conditions. By contrast, ad blocking doesn’t violate any legal condition on accessing webpage content (at least, as far as I know it doesn’t).

Ok, so let’s suppose the law has changed. Content providers now do enjoy legal protections of a form that make ad blocking unlawful. Ad blocking and piracy are now legally equivalent. Are they then also morally equivalent, or is there still a moral difference between them?

It seems to me that there is still a difference. But why?

Perhaps the difference lies in the costs of complying with the provider’s conditions. Complying with a ‘must view ads’ condition means seeing ads which are, let’s face it, often very ugly, and often very annoying. It also means allowing one’s internet behaviour to be tracked by various ad providers. It thus involves significant cognitive, aesthetic and privacy-related costs. By contrast, the costs of compliance in piracy cases are often mainly financial – you have to pay for the content. Perhaps it could be argued that the costs of complying with the ‘must view ads’ condition are so morally weighty that web surfers aren’t required to bear them, whereas the costs of compliance in piracy cases are less weighty and ought to be accepted.

At best, this argument applies only to some forms of piracy, however. Much piracy is, like ad blocking, also driven by a desire to avoid serious annoyance – it’s often very difficult to legitimately access the paywalled or geo-blocked content that we want, especially for those of us with attachments to multiple countries. In fact, it’s often impossible. (Example: In many cases I can’t legitimately stream New Zealand TV in the UK, no matter what I pay.) So, the cost of complying with a content provider’s paywall or geo-blocking conditions is often foregoing the content altogether. By contrast, complying with a ‘must view ads’ condition is never so costly, since there’s always the option of accessing the content and accepting the ads.

Still, even when piracy is the only way of obtaining some form of content, it seems more problematic than ad blocking.

Here’s another suggestion: the difference between ad blocking and piracy might lie in the justifiability of the conditions imposed by content providers. Perhaps web publishers are unjustified in serving horrendous pop-over ads (with a minuscule grey cross in the corner), especially when web surfers don’t know what kinds of ads they might be served before navigating to a webpage. By contrast, movie studios (for instance) are arguably perfectly justified in charging people to see their films, and New Zealand TV channels are justified in preventing their content from being streamed in the UK.

Again, though, this argument runs into trouble in many cases; some web advertising seems pretty morally innocuous. But even blocking innocuous ads seems less problematic than piracy.

I think there is a more promising way of explaining the intuitive moral difference between ad blocking and piracy; the conditions placed on accessing web content are typically less certain than those placed on accessing paywalled or geo-blocked content. For instance, in placing a ‘79p’ button on an mp3 download page, and in directing prospective purchasers to a payment page, online music retailers make it 100% clear that they are offering the music for download on the condition that the downloader pays. By contrast, it’s not always 100% clear that web publishers intend their content to be accessed only on the condition that web surfers also access their ads. Many web publishers may have no such condition in mind. Some may even endorse the possibility of accessing their content without viewing their ads. (Arment is arguably an example of this; he serves ads on his own blog, while elsewhere endorsing at least the limited use of ad blockers. The implicit message may be ‘feel free to read my blog without accessing the ads’.)

Web surfers don’t generally know the intentions of web publishers when navigating to their pages. So there’s generally uncertainty as to whether the web publisher is really implicitly placing a ‘must view ads’ condition on accessing content. Perhaps violating this (possible) condition is less morally problematic than violating the more certain conditions placed by the providers of paywalled or geo-blocked content.

This, it seems to me, is a genuine moral difference between ad blocking and piracy, as the two practices actually occur in the world today. Still, it’s a pretty flimsy difference, since it would break down if web publishers made their intentions clearer. Suppose when navigating to a website you are presented with the message: ‘Turn your ad-blocker off before accessing our site. Our content is provided on the understanding that you also view our ads.’ And suppose you leave your ad blocker on and proceed regardless. In this sort of case, it seems to me that your ad blocking probably just is morally equivalent to piracy.

Whether it’s morally wrong is, of course, a further question.







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6 Comment on this post

  1. This article ignores two additional highly relevant distinctions: the user-tracking involved in much of the online advertising (which is the primary concern for many well-informed ad-blocker users), as well as the rise in “malvertising.” These offer justifications for ad-blocking that don’t exist in the context of piracy.

  2. The moral stance outlined in the article must appear to be false from many world views where market forces are not the only consideration (probably including parts of many moral schema). For example whilst it is unlikely that a website restricted to Jewish content would ordinarily advertise a non-kosher butcher it is possible other sites accessed by people of religion would present things morally repugnant to them, so from their perspectives it would clearly seem morally right for ad blocking to take place. Some recognition of that type of problem is contained within the article but the very wide moral and ethical implications encompassed by that point seemed to be glossed over as many questions arise out of that. Are barriers between different religions, sects, nation states and peoples created/promoted by ad-blocking? Is censorship at those levels and in that way correct?

    Accepting that piracy of purely commercial products is wrong and then removing the commercial element as a distraction; is push (completely free and unsolicited advertising) acceptable, or even possible, or should pull (free browsing/use(purchase)) be the only norm?

    Similar arguments to those contained within the article could be applied to free software where the competition is directly with commercial products; raising the question what is free software and is it moral?

    Asking the question – If unfettered push advertising becomes completely acceptable in contentious areas, why do various groups wish to minimise or provide some different focus suiting their own interests without allowing individuals to also do so? – seems to help.
    The creation of advertising focusing on groups of individuals who have been profiled to allow some seemingly informed decision about their potential wishes by an advertiser is acknowledged within the last question but that merely moves the field rather than providing any answer.

  3. “Implicit agreement” !?

    Here is the real agreement: when you put content on the web, you are agreeing for other people to summon it into their browsers and read or not read it as they please.

    It is not even very implicit, but rather explicit — written into the IETF protocols — and of long established practice. In a contest of justification by ‘implicit agreements’, this wins, and ads lose.

    And this is quite dissimilar to piracy, is it not? Web-content-providing is a very characteristic and clearly demarcated interaction with the commons.

  4. I think that one source of the different moral “feel” of adblocking is the sense that no-one is losing out on anything. If I do not generally click on web ads and buy stuff (and I don’t), then neither the advertiser nor the advertised is going to benefit from putting that ad in front of me. The website will not, in fact, get its half a cent for my click whether I see the ad or not; the product is not going to be bought, whether I see the ad or not. Because I know myself better than the advertisers know me, we have an asymmetry of information. I use my better information to make a judgment which they can’t, and block the ads, knowing that I have not in fact harmed them at all, because the website is happy for non-clickers to look at their content as well as clickers.

    Whether the above stands up as a good argument is another question, but I think that is one of the key subjective differences: when I listen to music without paying, I know that I have cheated the vendor of 79p which they would otherwise have got; when I adblock, I know (or think I know) that they weren’t going to get anything anyway.

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