Why It’s OK to Block Ads

Over the past couple of months, the practice of ad blocking has received heightened ethical scrutiny. (1,2,3,4)

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “ad blocking” refers to software—usually web browser plug-ins, but increasingly mobile apps—that stop most ads from appearing when you use websites or apps that would otherwise show them.

Arguments against ad blocking tend to focus on the potential economic harms. Because advertising is the dominant business model on the internet, if everyone used ad-blocking software then wouldn’t it all collapse? If you don’t see (or, in some cases, click on) ads, aren’t you getting the services you currently think of as “free”—actually for free? By using ad-blocking, aren’t you violating an agreement you have with online service providers to let them show you ads in exchange for their services? Isn’t ad blocking, as the industry magazine AdAge has called it, “robbery, plain and simple”?

In response, defenders of ad blocking tend to counter with arguments that ads are often “annoying,” and that blocking them is a way to force advertising to get better. Besides, they say, users who block ads wouldn’t have bought the advertisers’ products anyway. Many users also object to having data about their browsing and other behavioral habits tracked by advertising companies. Some also choose to block ads in hopes of speeding up page load times or reducing their overall data usage.

What I find remarkable is the way both sides of this debate seem to simply assume the large-scale capture and exploitation of human attention to be ethical and/or inevitable in the first place. This demonstrates how utterly we have all failed to understand the role of attention in the digital age—as well as the implications of spending most of our lives in an environment designed to compete for it.

In the 1970’s, Herbert Simon pointed out that when information becomes abundant, attention becomes the scarce resource. In the digital age, we’re living through the pendulum swing of that reversal—yet we consistently overlook its implications.

Think about it: the attention you’re deploying in order to read this sentence right now (an attention for which, by the way, I am grateful)—an attention that includes, among other things, the saccades of your eyeballs, the information flows of your executive control function, your daily stockpile of willpower, and the goals you hope reading this blog post will help you achieve—these and other processes you use to navigate your life are literally the object of competition among most of the technologies you use every day. There are literally billions of dollars being spent to figure out how to get you to look at one thing over another; to buy one thing over another; to care about one thing over another. This is the way we are now monetizing most of the information in the world.

The large-scale effort that has emerged to capture and exploit your attention as efficiently as possible is often referred to as the “attention economy.” In the attention economy, winning means getting as many people as possible to spend as much time and attention as possible with your product or service. (Although, as it’s often said, in the attention economy “the user is the product.”) Because there’s so much competition for people’s attention, this inevitably means you have to appeal to the impulsive parts of people’s brains and exploit the catalog of irrational biases that psychologists and behavioral economists have been diligently compiling over the last few decades. (In fact, there’s a burgeoning industry of authors and consultants helping designers draw on the latest research in behavioral science to exploit these vulnerabilities as effectively and as reliably as possible.)

We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like “annoying” or “distracting.” But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want.” Thus there are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self.

Design ethics in the digital age has almost totally focused on how technologies manage our information—think privacy, surveillance, censorship, etc.—largely because our conceptual tool sets emerged in environments where information was the scarce and valuable thing. But far less analysis has focused on the way our technologies manage our attention, and it’s long past time to forge new ethical tools for this brave new world.

It’s important to note that the essential question here is not whether we as users are being manipulated by design. That is precisely what design is. The question is whether or not the design is on our side.

Think about the websites, apps, or communications platforms you use most. What behavioral metric do you think they’re trying to maximize in their design of your attentional environment? I mean, what do you think is actually on the dashboards in their weekly product design meetings?

Whatever metric you think they’re nudging you toward—how do you know? Wouldn’t you like to know? Why shouldn’t you know? Isn’t there an entire realm of transparency and corporate responsibility going undemanded here?

I’ll give you a hint, though: it’s probably not any of the goals you have for yourself. Your goals are things like “spend more time with the kids,” “learn to play the zither,” “lose twenty pounds by summer,” “finish my degree,” etc. Your time is scarce, and you know it.

Your technologies, on the other hand, are trying to maximize goals like “Time on Site,” “Number of Video Views,” “Number of Pageviews,” and so on. Hence clickbait, hence auto-playing videos, hence avalanches of notifications. Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it.

But these design goals are petty and perverse. They don’t recognize our humanity because they don’t bother to ask about it in the first place. In fact, these goals often clash with the mission statements and marketing claims that technology companies craft for themselves.

These petty and perverse goals exist largely because they serve the goals of advertising. Most advertising incentivizes design that optimizes for our attention rather than our intentions. (Where advertising does respect & support user intent, it’s arguable whether “advertising” is even the right thing to call it.) And because digital interfaces are far more malleable (by virtue of their basis in software) than “traditional” media such as TV and radio ever were, digital environments can be bent more fully to the design logic of advertising. Before software, advertising was always the exception to the rule—but now, in the digital world, advertising has become the rule.

I often hear people say, “I use AdBlock, so the ads don’t affect me at all.” How head-smackingly wrong they are. (I know, because I used to say this myself.) If you use products and services whose fundamental design logic is rooted in maximizing advertising performance—that is to say, in getting you to spend as much of your precious time and attention using the product as possible—then even if you don’t see the ads, you still see the ad for the ad (i.e. the product itself). You still get design that exploits your non-rational psychological biases in ways that work against you. You still get the flypaper even if you don’t get the swatter. A product or service does not magically redesign itself around your goals just because you block it from reaching its own.

So if you wanted to cast a vote against the attention economy, how would you do it?

There is no paid version of Facebook. Most websites don’t give you the option to pay them directly. Meaningful governmental regulation is unlikely. And the “attention economy” can’t fix itself: players in the ecosystem don’t even measure the things they’d need to measure in order to monetize our intentions rather than our attention. Ultimately, the ethical challenge of the attention economy is not one of individual actors but rather the system as a whole (a perspective Luciano Floridi has termed “infraethics”).

In reality, ad blockers are one of the few tools that we as users have if we want to push back against the perverse design logic that has cannibalized the soul of the Web.

If enough of us used ad blockers, it could help force a systemic shift away from the attention economy altogether—and the ultimate benefit to our lives would not just be “better ads.” It would be better products: better informational environments that are fundamentally designed to be on our side, to respect our increasingly scarce attention, and to help us navigate under the stars of our own goals and values. Isn’t that what technology is for?

Given all this, the question should not be whether ad blocking is ethical, but whether it is a moral obligation. The burden of proof falls squarely on advertising to justify its intrusions into users’ attentional spaces—not on users to justify exercising their freedom of attention.

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56 Responses to Why It’s OK to Block Ads

  • Phil H says:

    Perhaps one way to think about this inversion that you’re talking about eould be to say: when we look at free web content, we think we’re consuming, but actually we’re working. The work is looking at the ads, the payment is the tempting content.

    • flubber says:

      So you could make a worker’s rights argument that the workplace is inhospitable.

    • James Williams says:

      Yes, I think this is a productive metaphor for the situation. I’m reminded of Joyce’s line from Finnegans Wake: ‘My consumers are they not my producers?’

  • Ian says:

    This area for the individual also reveals privacy in its social sense – in the context of privacy understood as an individuals focus (across all areas). Do you think that reflecting beyond your argument carefully would reveal other factors for the individual which they may use/exercise in addition to/instead of the currently available privacy digital/electronic devices (software or hardware). Those facets would seem more important in the academic/moral/ethical fields than the digital enhancement or refinement of the input received, important as that is (if individual liberties are to be maintained) in the wider communities. It seems a further question would be; is a strict focus maintained by the individual any different than a strict focus forced upon the individual? It seems to me only each individual may answer that, but the social consequences appear significant.

    • James Williams says:

      I think you’re right that there’s terrain worth exploring here re: using “privacy” as a potential way to frame these questions of attention. (The concept of “mental privacy” from neuroethics might serve as a useful starting point.) The strengths of taking this route, it seems to me, would be that it lets us draw on existing terms, concepts, and narratives already in wide use across society, rather than having to engineer them from the ground up. The downside, however, is that there’s already very little agreement as to what issues should be put under the “privacy” umbrella—and it could be the case that adding attentional privacy to the mix would just serve to dilute the concept of privacy beyond any real usefulness. (There’s also a deeper challenge, in that talking about attention in terms of privacy may require us to lean a bit more heavily on the metaphor of attention as a type of space than is actually justifiable.) But broadly speaking, I do agree that there are potentially useful resonances here waiting to be explored.

      • Ian says:

        The term attentional privacy would extend a muddy expression. My own understanding of that area is that privacy directly facilitates focus but once considered carefully in that sense privacy and focus merge becoming indistinguishable from each other (but perhaps that is only my own perception). Diluting the concept of privacy has not been my intention, quite the contrary, as that facet can be directly linked and partly arose out of presented concepts of freedom of thought/conscience and its frequent interpretation as liberty; so a strengthening of the link between those two existing areas/definitions occurs. As such, focus is an existing but perhaps not properly recognised or documented privacy facet/element, The closest world views probably supportive of focus may be religion or politics because those spheres often view privacy as a manipulative or boundary mechanism. Drilling down behind privacy’s social uses is the difficulty for my project as those social uses (if not merely received wisdom) often indicate the deployment of individual understandings of the privacy mechanism within the social sphere just as your rationalisation of focus documents some of your understandings.

        Thank you for your thoughtful mention of neuroethics, As you will see my research does occasionally entail looking at that sphere, but as with many other spheres more value is gained by not becoming caught within the predominant thought processes in one particular area whilst attempting this exercise and so the solitary idiots life remains more appropriate. But I am content to converse, albeit rather stiltedly, via blogs on this subject from time to time.

        To assist in understanding some of what has been said. An example of the social aspects of privacy would be to consider the thread on parental consent for gene testing on this blog as a social tension deliberately created by political will which appears to have been facilitated by egoistic needs to personally see outcomes occur during a particular lifetime. With the collection process ignoring many values of portions of the wider community in order to compile a large database quickly and then use the data for very wide ranging purposes, the result has been the politicization of some groups of people. If a more widely inclusive (of all affected value sets) method had been implemented the growth of the database would possibly have been slower but eventually resulted in the same outcomes. Those social tensions caused by that more effective data collection process are clearly visible but of limited interest to my own project beyond the beneficial impact on privacy awareness and the subsequent discussions regarding that. Much ethical discussion has resulted, but unsurprisingly given the world views of the majority of those involved the main focus of those discussions appears to be upon affecting or avoiding the values which may be stressed by the process with little appearing to be recognized/comprehended (or perhaps not appearing openly in public) of how more inclusive frameworks could solve those tensions and what they may look like. You can perceive that perspective views many in ethics frequently becoming caught up within the box rather than viewing the experienced difficulties more philosophically. As an imposed process the collection recording and use of that data (as with many similar projects) lacks respect for the values of others and has been mainly justified by time factors. As the old ads say, speed kills, something which is valid in may spheres, and in many directions.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    The main goal of websites that carry third-party online advertising, and of social media platforms, is tracking individual users, rather than maximising attention. It’s not really much use to advertisers if you spend 6 minutes on website instead of 4. In the longer term, what they want is to target advertising using an accurate profile. That seems to me to be much more of a threat than clickbait, and indeed ad-blockers will not help.

    An example of the problem: I kept getting Google ads for muslim dating, even when I checked the weather forecast. Eventually I realised that it was because I was reading news reports about Geert Wilders, the prominent anti-Islam politician. Google’s algorithm evidently decided that only Muslims do that, perhaps because it is a self-teaching algorithm, and did in fact harvest muslim-dating clicks in that way. Also, almost any article about Wilders will contain the word ‘Islam’, and perhaps Google sells that trigger via AdSense. It is so far as I know illegal in the EU, to record a person’s religion, but the main problem is that third parties may access that information. The third party might conclude that I was a Muslim, and kill me.

    Ads can actually be useful in telling you what Google and other ad-suppliers know about you, or think they know. Ad-blockers will not in any way prevent tracking of your activity and interests, As James Williams points out, all it does is keep your browser screen clear of the ad. However the emphasis on the irritating attention-grabbing strategies is misplaced, if it obstructs concern for the more serious issues of tracking and profiling.

    • Steve Raymond says:

      That’s not correct, I know because I work in digital media and have for 15+ years. Most of the industry is optimized around increasing page views or time spent as the primary metric, or app usage and downloads in the mobile domain. Even YouTube which is owned by Google optimizes around video watch time. The targeting that you speak of does happen, but it doesn’t inform product design – it is mostly a data collection (ad-tech) exercise.

    • Tom Fitch says:

      Any decent ad blocker will block trackers, beacons, etc. For starters, go to eff.org and check out Privacy Badger, which is designed specifically for that.

    • Librarian says:

      I’d say you’re wrong (or at least mixing up things) – the goal of the websites still is to have you stay for as long as possible. The longer you stay, the more money they can demand from their advertisers. It’s the advertisers who want accurate profiles and track you across websites, to show ads that are better targeted at you.

  • Ionizer says:

    A very interesting perspective. It seems indeed like a societal problem that advertisers utilize for other ends than we as consumers have. And this discrepancy is already taken for granted. Although i don´t see any other solution than somehow “fixing” the human deficiency that attention can be “snatched” away by anything beyond the individuals own intentions. So basically transhumanism is the solution, once again.

    • James Williams says:

      I wouldn’t say it’s a “deficiency” that we’re so distractible: our non-rational biases were evolutionarily extremely advantageous (and many still are). The problem is that our environment has changed so radically, and so rapidly, from the environment in which those biases emerged, such that many are no longer useful, and some even work against us. For example, as we wandered across the plains of Africa, our tendency to eat and store as much food as we can kept us alive; in an environment of Uber and Lay-Z-Boys, however, it causes obesity. (I’m reminded of Matthew Crawford’s line in “The World Beyond Your Head”—a book on this topic I strongly recommend—that distractedness is akin to an “obesity of the mind.”)

      So I think the way to navigate out of this crisis of distraction is by changing our environment again, except intentionally, so that it better aligns with the realities of our psychology. (I wouldn’t call that “transhumanism,” but maybe others would.) Aldous Huxley expressed the nature of the challenge well in Island when he wrote, “We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality. All we can do is learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way.”

  • infovoy says:

    Interesting points.

    Yes, there are commercial interests at play not only obvious ad-serving & clickbait, but the design of the sites, 3rd party tracking us with cookies, XSS (cross-site scripting), referrers, examination of your browser footprint, and a whole host of other technical ways.

    The good news is that despite what’s said here *all* these methods can be countered to some degree. Yes, even design.

    What people don’t tend to realise is that the web – downloaded as HTML and other code – *always* has to be rendered locally – that code interpreted and implemented by your web browser. What an ad-blocker actually does is sit between the receipt of the code and the rendering, amending the code by a series of rules to render it as you want, in the case of ad0-blockers without the ads.

    These days for simplicity ad-blockers tend to be browser add-ons, but in the old days us techies used to use browser independent web proxy software like Proxomitron (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proxomitron) where it was easier to see and grasp the process. The tag line for that software was ‘the web as you want it’.

    These days many of the features in that software, and protection against all the hooks listed above are pretty much available as Firefox add-ons if you know what to look for. Other browser – being commercial – I’m not so sure.

    One way commercial interests hit back at what was becoming a trend of easier and easier ways to have the web as you want it was to move to devices and software that restrict what the user can do in the name of ‘easy computing’. Ironically Apple led the way in this becoming the enemy of old skool techies while the old enemy – Microsoft – has only recently headed in that direction. The trend for mobile devices has intensified the problem.

    Users are fully won over (bamboozled into accepting the web as they want it by shiny stuff effectively). Such is the way of the world.

    But for those oif us who know what we’re doing and own a PC and the right free software, believe me, there are many things you can do to fight back and have the web as you want it, not how it’s given.

  • Tim Bates says:

    What you are asking for would cause not one, but two bad outcomes. The first, most obvious is that honest content will be priced like books: a curious reader will be paying $50/month, and many won’t afford themselves this information. The second, less obvious, is that “ad-free” articles will become the advert: your current half-honest writers will be replaced by scribes fully committed to productized scripts. This is what most people will read.

    I’d much rather know what the advert is, and not have to pay to peek.

  • Ran says:

    What about the question you presented at the outset: is adblocking “robbery”? You seem to say that yes.

    • Michael McBain says:

      Ah, yes, the ‘theft’ argument. This usually gets rolled out when some nuf-nuff wants ‘the Government’ to legislate against ad-blockers. But we can look to the traditional media for a response to that. If I pick up a newspaper, whether I buy it or not, I’m not covering the cost of production; that is provided by the advertisers. If I watch TV, but go and make coffee while the ads are on, that’s not my problem. There is a paid alternative in cable, and if the content is good enough, I might pay for it, but there are so many free-to-air channels, chances are I won’t. If someone’s business model is based on media from half a century ago, or if they think that government regulation is necessary to their success, then their business model is broken. The internet has changed the playing field. Whether TV shows, music distribution, book sales, white goods, we don’t owe the advertisers anything. If Rupert Murdoch doesn’t want to give me free access to the Times, I can find the same stories elsewhere, or even just not bother, which is increasingly what people do.
      Readers have never paid directly for traditional journalism; it has always been the advertisers who have paid for the production costs of newspapers. TV news has competed directly with newspapers, but I owe no more fealty to the owners of TV stations than I do to the owners of newspapers.

    • James Williams says:

      Hi Ran, I reject the premises of this question for the reasons I discuss in the article (i.e. the deeper ethical problems with the nature of the attention economy itself). If we were to take the attention economy as granted, then I think this question would probably deserve further analysis. However, my sense is that any clarity about the question would ultimately turn on legal, rather than ethical, distinctions about property and ownership (though if there are any lawyers here, please feel free to correct me).

      • David says:

        I’m a lawyer ( US, not UK though we are pretty close).

        Those who argue that adblocking is “stealing” are, in my opinion, using the word rhetorically to emotionally impact those in the audience who would not understand some of their actual legal arguments. Stealing, in is various forms- embezzlement, larceny, etc, include as an essential element the intention to deprive the true owner of the good in perpetuity. No one is taking anything and the owner still has what he did before.

        An argument could be made about stealing bandwidth, but the laws on this are unclear ( last I checked, this is not my area). This occurs, for example in “hot linking” which is the practice of presenting something, say a youtube video, on your website that you do not host but is rather displayed from a link to another page. Most of the litigation on the matter has been related to copyright rather than to the bandwidth. The other area were this occurs is in wifi “leeching” with some jurisdictions having laws against it. However, most arguments about it are not related to theft per se as often as they are to things like “unauthorized access to a computer” or interference with contractual obligations.

        It would seem, therefore, that calling this theft is a statement of a legal position they would like argue, but that the courts (here anyway) do not yet recognize. I would speculate that this is not because it is not considered wrong, but because each is easily addressed by the web site owner or the wifi provider respectively. One puts a code on his page to block hot linking the other password protects his wifi.

        The idea of it being a violation of an implied contract fails for different reasons. A contract requires a meeting of the minds, intent, and so on. It also requires consideration on both sides, that is that both give something. If they give their content and you, according to the provider, are supposed to give your consent to view ads, then your use of an adblock makes you non-consent clear, thus no contract would be created. Interestingly, your attention theory might aid the content provider if they were to argue that the consideration you give is your attention and that what they give is their content AND ads and it is not divisible.

        This is only a rough answer without research on my first impressions as to the legality and I’m sure I’m missing a thing or two. So take it as points to consider rather than chapter and verse.

        I find your position on the battle for our attention very interesting, particularly when you mentioned content as being “ads for ads” as it mirror something I was just thinking about today. With exceptions of sites that are explicitly selling things, I still see the internet as a sort of global town square. Using an adblocker is not, as an editor on ars technica wrote, like going in to a restaurant and not paying. It is like walking among the town criers with then news, the buskers with the entertainment, the soapbox firebrands with the crazy, the don with the class, and the snake oil salesman and so on. The fact that I listen to one for a few minutes does not mean I have to tip him though an ethic of reciprocity may make me do so if I received value from them. Of course, I need to listen before I know that so they are dependent on my good will.

        As content becomes ads for ads that good will is less likely to materialize no only because it does not fulfill my purpose in being on its site but that it distracts me from being somewhere that would have fulfilled my needs. The site has taken something from me rather than given something to me in exchange for the ads. Worse, if I was doing a general google search and the site games the rankings so that they appear over a better site that would have filled me needs, I have fallen prey to an ad for the ads for the ads. In my town square, this would be like hiring a tour guide who is getting a kickback to take me one place rather than where I want to go.

        A content provider should have clean hands himself before he accuses ad blockers of being unethical.

        ( sorry, not proof reading, late at night. )

  • Jerome says:

    Agree that Attention is undervalued and many sites are rudely designed in way to prioritize selling over educating or delighting.

    But you gloss over or completely miss several important points:
    1) I’ve seen some sites actually strike a thoughtful, reasonable balance… using, for instance, unobtrusive text ads placed at the bottom or sides of articles so as not to substantively fracture attention. Why not support such sites while shunning the other sites that have gone overboard? Why throw out the baby with the bathwater?
    2) You don’t write a whit about what would replace an ad-supported system online. Would you be willing to pay each time you access an article? Would you be up for paying subscription fees for every site you enjoy visiting? Perhaps you would, but then you overlook an immense selfishness: what about those without the means to pay for such information? Would you tell folks in third world countries, people without a credit card, kids without income… sorry, can’t afford the 30 pence per article? Go away!

    Until and unless you and others advocating ad blocking suggest a viable alternative system, all of you are basically the equivalent of anarchists who gleefully urge others to set fire to an entire city. Perhaps well-meaning anarchists, understandably fed up with corruption and blight. But we need smart, realistic solutions. Your post, alas, is not including any such thing.

    • James Williams says:

      Hi Jerome, good points. A couple thoughts:

      1) There’s certainly a wide spectrum of annoyance & obtrusiveness in the way ads are implemented on different sites. However, I don’t think that annoyance is the real meat of the ethical problem. Rather, it’s the way in which ads (at least ones that monetize attention, not intentions) incentivize designs that seeks to maximize the amount of time/attention we spend with them. In fact, less annoying ads are generally more successful in this regard: you’re more likely to leave if a site has annoying ads, and more likely to keep using it if the ads aren’t in the way. But in both cases, the incentive to maximize time/attention spent is still operative, and it still primarily influences the sites’ design and content.

      2) My aim here was simply to defend one particular type of resistance against the “attention economy”; I felt like mapping out what could come next would have made the post much, much too long. 🙂 But there are several interesting and viable options here, and I’d be happy to write a follow-up post that goes into them, if it’d be of interest.

      • Jerome says:

        James, thanks, and enjoying the dialog; lots to think about!

        I think, re compatibility of advertising and an attention-respectful user interface, there are three possible outlooks:
        1) Alignment is impossible; monetizing attention is 100% incompatible with an attention-respectful user experience.
        2) Alignment can be difficult. The temptation to monetize attention at the expense of a respectful user experience is great, and the ability to align making money from advertising and delivering a great user experience is narrow.
        3) These issues are orthogonal. Lots of ad-free sites have horribly distracting user interfaces (to maximize intra-site clickthrus, newsletter signups… or due to inexperienced webmasters/designers). And sites containing ads can easily be structured in a such a way as to reasonably maximize attention-respect (e.g., having a small text ad at the bottom of pages; imagine you’re reading an article on “How to pick the right skis for you” and at the bottom is a text link “buy skiis on Amazon.co.uk.” You were able to read the article without distraction, the ad-footer distracts minimally from the page and site architecture, AND — wow, you were looking to buy skiis, you got great advice, and now you are one click away from going directly to Amazon’s ski center. Happy all ’round)

        I am vacillating between #2 and #3 ;).

        I’d love to read more from you re…
        – why you (seem to) believe in #1; what makes these goals completely incompatible?
        – what you believe are reasonable solutions so that publishers can get paid, publishers are incented to architect attention-respectful sites, users get quality content, search engines can index all content, and economically disadvantaged users are not blocked from enjoying the content.

        One interesting idea is Google Consumer Surveys, where businesses can pay to have folks polled online, and readers can correspondingly fill out a brief (usually 1-2 question) survey in exchange for accessing an article or site. On one hand, that’s still sapping attention; people have to do something before they can read what they wanted to read. But on the other hand, when offered as an *alternative* to subscribing to a newspaper online, for instance, it at least preserves an opportunity for people who have more time than money.

        • Dave says:

          As a web site owner and app developer who hates ads (particularly on mobile) I’d be very interested in hearing your ideas for ad-less monetization.

          I’m working on a reciprocity model for the app. The idea is that we should only try and make money off satisfied customers and those satisfied customers (determined by their frequency of use of their app) should be encouraged to respond to the generosity of the app developer, who’s given them a great and helpful app with lots of features, by paying that app developer a fixed amount. Whilst reciprocity is the glue that binds groups and in the real world we’d never not accept the generosity of someone who’s given us something valuable without wanting to repay them in some way, making this case is much harder online.

          • Tim Bates says:

            Voluntary gift models seem to have failed on any kind of scale. If you want to give something away, you have to do just that.

            Pay-to-produce (rather than pay to consume) models seem to be one way forward (e.g. patreon).

            Alternatively a market for reporting might work: If I wonder “why are there three oil rigs in the Firth of Forth”. A reporter might hire a boat and a car, and do some interviews, and research online, and let me know, if I paid their week’s wages.

            But this is essentially the problem that Newspapers solved: A method for collecting people with the same questions in a model where they can trust the reporters, and are willing to pay a portion of the cost of doing the reporting in order to see the story.

            Probably Rupert Murdoch’s strategy is correct: Paywall the articles, wait until all other outlets are forced to do the same (or News ltd goes broke), and then resume growing the business under a subscription model.

            • Stefan Majewsky says:

              I disagree with “failed on any kind of scale”. Free software (free as in speech, not beer) is being given away in vast quantities and the free software community thrives because a large enough quantity of its users become contributors in some way, thereby repaying the generosity.

              I don’t imply that the free software model can be adapted to any other branch of industry, but “failed on any kind of scale” is easily refuted with that example.

        • Andreas says:

          Let me please remark, that there are interesting alternatives! Blendle.com for example (german and dutch).

          It lets you read articles from various (analogue & digital) newspapers online, you pay per article.
          You do even have a kind of get-your-money-back guarantee, if you didn’t like the article.

      • Adam Engst says:

        James, I’m with Jerome in wanting to hear more what you think are viable alternatives to advertising as a business model for most Internet-based content. You make great sweeping claims, but from only one perspective – that of the consumer of all this content that’s made freely available for you to pick and choose from, according to your intent (Hmm…). If you were to put yourself in the shoes of writers and publishers, how would you design an informational environment that would better respect the intentions of readers while still putting food on the table? (Or, more to the point, how would you attract any readers at all in today’s real world?) And if you were to imagine that you’re an inventor or a developer with a product or app that does something new or interesting, how would you tell potential consumers about it?

        And “If you build it, they will come.” is a movie quote, not a business model.

  • Erez says:


    I agree with your point regarding those who can’t afford to pay for articles, we shouldn’t advocate a solution that would deprive them of information. But an optional ad-free version of websites (allowing both models at once) shouldn’t be hard to implement, and could perhaps even be more profitable. You may ask, why would anyone support two models, if the vast majority of his users only use one? That’s exactly the point. If everyone used ad-block it might steer websites to become paywalls. But right now the vast majority is still seeing their ads. We (the minority who cares about our attention) should only aim to become a big enough market, so that websites will accommodate us with a paid model. And then we can safely forsake adblock, and with any luck it will die a natural death. At the very least, the argument for using it will become much much weaker.

    @Paul Treanor,

    Surely there will be less market incentive to track you, if you it becomes near impossible to advertise to you.

  • zs says:

    The irony of this post having a like-button.

  • Ian says:

    The thread seems to be diluting itself:

    – Advertising model v paywall (no ads – if you can find paywalls that do not include any advertising.)
    – Advertising as merely attention seeking
    – Profiling of individuals with the data being used only by advertisers for advertising (not otherwise attempting to influence.)
    – Completely free content on the web (a commercial v non-commercial argument)

    One thing that has not been considered is that advertisements have themselves become part of the tracking and profiling web mechanisms. i.e. web pages are frequently served by advertisements obtained from a number of different servers and the information from those is used to track/profile users. That factor does not seem to be openly advertised by that sector, something which could be perceived as organisational corruption when viewed from within an open and transparent social model.

    Where web users are aware of some of those issues the arguments they present may be seen as not so much a fight against advertising but a fight against profiling and the uses that particular set of information is intended to be used for.

    So if ad blocking may be seen as piracy, is it also possible to see using advertisements used to track and profile individuals without their open knowledge as an offence against the individual?

    One question which is inherent in that seems to be; which world views hold the various perspectives involved and what factors are part of those? But why would advertisers be interested in those issues?

  • Jerome says:

    Ian, I think the tracking brouhaha is wildly overblown.

    Retargeting… okay, that can get annoying. Hey, Airline, I already BOUGHT that ticket! Quit bugging me across the web. But nefarious? Is there a single (yes, even one) proven example of someone being harmed by such retargeting or tracking? Not hypothetical, actual harm.

    Let’s think back a half dozen years or so. PUNCH THE MONKEY ads were everywhere. Ads completely irrelevant to our interests. I’m a 30-something-year-old guy with no kids, I do not need feminine hygiene products. I also do not need Viagra, kids’ toys, weight-loss products, etc.

    The internet is learning more and more about me. Good. I’ll see (and am already seeing) ads for things I am more likely to be interested in. I increasingly see camping gear ads, skiing-related ads, ads for things I actually want to buy.

    And tracking isn’t just for enabling us to see better ads; it’s a way for businesses (big and small) to increase their ROI… spending less money on ads and making more sales by understanding which ads perform on which sites and with which demographics. Better ROI = more money for that company to spend on employees, product price stabilization or improvement, etc.

    So, in essence, I think a lot of the rhetoric against ads is horribly misguided. Anyone with a brain and conscience wants ads that aren’t horribly intrusive, offensive, misleading. Agreed. But wiping the internet of ads — even making ads opt-in or opt-out — will result in bad consequences for businesses, consumers, and pretty much everyone who appreciates accessible content on the web.

    Which brings us to accessible: if you hide even, say, 20% of content behind a pay wall, what does that do to search engines? And for the ability of people to find the information they’re looking for? Again, bad consequences.

    Work on reforming online ads. Because killing them off for yourself and others is a really bad idea.

    • delighted reader says:

      If you are interested in tailored ads, you could subscribe to them, there could be a service you activily choose and subscribe to. If things were like that, we would not need adblockers. It’s not like that, though. Advertisers do not care whether I’m interested in ads at all. Even worse, they sell my annoyance as success to their customers by having a scheme like pageviews (or ads that you hit unwillingly, because they are placed near some buttons you wanted to hit…). They betray their customers by hiding my displeasure with their ads, claiming instead I am interested. The adblocker, at least, leaves no doubt about that anymore. Once ads are gone, people will publish for fame, for spreading knowledge, for fun… like they did on the old internet, which was more about my own intents, and pulling information, not having it pushed on me, dressed like a “tempting” prostitute. Someone mentioned free software. Universities are another example. Clickbait won’t make sense anymore, though. Well, good riddance.

  • Jerome says:

    (by the way, it’s taking over a minute to actually submit each comment; might want to explore what’s up with your server)

  • Henry Thornton says:

    @Jerome The “rhetoric against ads is horribly misguided”? It isn’t and everyone outside of adtech knows it and so do people within it. If ads disappeared from the web today, it would not die. In fact, it would probably thrive. There is a ton of wonderful and informative “free” content on the web that has been put up there by people who are not in it for the money. For example, this site. There also plenty of good-enough free global news sites too eg. the BBC.

    Also, the internet/web with ads is not free – typically today people pay for both broadband at home and for their smartphone and neither of them are cheap. If people don’t want ads and ad-blockers can remove them then people have the right to do so because they are paying for their broadband.

  • Kelly McLaren says:

    Oh my word. Advertising is like pollution of the thinking space. I hate advertising and corporate language and techniques of all shapes and forms.

    Perhaps if ads had ethics there would be no need to block them.

    • kdm says:

      “Reklame” is polluting the world, our eyes, ears, minds and thoughts.
      It should be called a crime.
      Things that human beings really need and want (and can pay for) need no ‘Reklame’.
      Avoid to buy all the products that need to make ‘Reklame’.

  • Ian says:


    This debate so far has clearly revealed the disparities between many views; each of which is valid from within its own world view.

    The points I have been attempting to draw out (and yes it was noticed my last post was not equally balanced but it seemed worthwhile still posting.) relate to the disparity and tensions between the different sets of values forming the world views which espouse the differing views. It must be OK for some people to prefer information to be presented to them (as received wisdom), just as it is OK for others to seek (or create) information themselves, without outside influence (or at least minimizing external influences). My own views of advertising (not tracking/profiling) are ambivalent, something it seemed to me had already been illustrated. As to receiving focused advertising about inappropriately gendered products, that sounds more like spam to me and appropriate filters would no doubt allow for the reduction or cessation of the receipt of that distraction.

    As identified the pay-wall v completely free and open web can be seen as problematic from some perspectives, but that does not make that particular commercial model wrong, it is merely different, brought about and supported by a different world view. Drawing all those issues together into the good of any commercial enterprise Adam Smith said something quite succinct at the end of his ‘Wealth of Nations’ which seemed to recognize many issues coming out here. It is however best to read the book to properly appreciate what is stated.

    It seems to me that if one looks for examples of harm being done they are provided by those businesses/areas/nation states where the imposition of a singular view is paramount and nothing else is valid. What is being harmed is a worthy question, but to say nothing is harmed would be incorrect.

  • Martin says:

    For those who are arguing about “business model” etc, the point is, our attention is not a good/sustainable business. If I have a way to avoid drug dealers in the street/trying their stuff, please don’t argue that I’m damaging their business model. Same thing for ads. Ads-driven business is damaging our free society, let’s fund something better.

  • Chris says:

    Will the internet survive without advertisement? Yes most probably it will. However most websites would be hidden behind a paywall, which is a shame because the current free model does help to provide information to those that cannot afford it.

    Besides, when every major site is paywalled, what makes us think that the advertisement will not come back?

    As for tracking, it helps website owners know what works and what doesn’t, and as @Jerome said it helps advertisers target their adverts to the right people. Just in case you don’t know, this site itself also uses google analytics for tracking.

  • WriterOfMinds says:

    Let’s suppose the premise of this article is correct, and the attention economy is inherently illegitimate and harmful to society. I’m still at a bit of a loss to justify blocking ads. Because blocking ads doesn’t just mean that I’m militating against some big, abstract entity called “the economy”; it means that there are individuals somewhere who have worked to provide me with content, and I’m taking that content without remitting the expected payment. I’m benefiting from their labor, and they see no return. It may or may not be theft in the technical sense, but it IS rather unfair, yes? No matter what big, systemic future benefits it might offer, betrayal at the level of individual people and businesses doesn’t sit well with me. Exercising my “freedom of attention” means I’m allowed to refrain from viewing the content, not that I’m allowed to view it under ad-free conditions that its creators never intended.

    What I would rather do is find pioneers who are starting to use business models that don’t rely on distraction, and support them to the maximum with the sort of payment they request … rather than taking the conveniently self-serving path of continuing to participate in the ad-supported experience, but doing it for free. I would like to see content creators transition to new models voluntarily because they see opportunity there, instead of being forced to transition because all the customers in the old model have turned dishonest.

    I’m also concerned that widespread use of ad blockers will precipitate not a revolution, but an arms race. As ad blockers get better at removing ads, website designers will get better at disguising ads as content, or forcing people to turn off their ad blocker before using the site, etc. Piracy created DRM and made consumption of digital content less pleasant for honest buyers. Why wouldn’t the same sort of thing happen here?

    • James Williams says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Avoiding bad models and pioneering good ones aren’t mutually exclusive, so I don’t really see a problem there. I’m all for experimentation with new monetization strategies. In fact, I think the proliferation of ad blocking would only accelerate that process.

      I don’t see ad blocking as dishonest because most users have no clue about the dynamics of the economic tradeoff they’re making to begin with: they don’t realize they’re selling their attention at all. (Most people don’t even realize this about newspapers, which are arguably the oldest ad-supported medium around.) For those that do understand the dynamics, the parameters of the economic trade-off are still largely opaque (we still don’t have a good way of talking about our attention, let alone accurately valuing it, or knowing how much others value it).

      I do sympathize with those who receive recurring revenue within the current model of attentional exploitation, and the costs that they would incur in the near term. However, in my view, this is not nearly great enough a reason to justify continued infringements on individual autonomy. The same argument could have been (and indeed was) made by plantation owners against the abolition of slavery in the United States (though of course I’m not drawing any equivalence between the two in terms of degree of harm, only of kind – I only use the example of slavery because it’s the first one that came to mind.)

      Your point about ad blockers pushing advertising into the content itself is an important one. (Cf. what’s happened with Tivo-esque ad avoidance during TV shows driving an increase in product placement within the shows themselves.) It’s one I don’t have a great answer to, to be honest. Of course, this sort of advertising has already existed for a long time – and of course we should have thoughtful societal conversation about the degree of transparency, regulation, etc. we expect from that sort of advertising (if that’s even the right word for it). But in general, the way I’d like to see advertising go is, as I mentioned in the post, toward monetizing intentions rather than attention, which would be a great boon to users and the fulfillment of their personal goals. But of course we as a society need to figure out in a bit more detail precisely how to nudge advertising down that path. But I think we can still start walking in that general direction, and I think ad blocking is one of the only ways we have to do that.

    • CokeZero says:

      “Blocking ads doesn’t just mean that I’m militating against some big, abstract entity called ‘the economy’;”
      If you don’t follow an advertisement to a purchase, you are blocking the advertisement.
      There is no moral difference between a person who goes and gets a beer while an ad is playing and one whom uses a DVR to skip the ad.
      There is no moral difference between a person who uses software to prevent advertising inundation and one whom ignores advertising.
      They are both utilizing a programmable machine to prevent the emptying of their bank account for frivolous items.
      Buy coke zero.

  • Willem says:

    The reason I use adblockers is simple: I visit a site for the content, and any resources needed to load the pages (network, cpu, disk) because of advertising that is not related to the content, is not just annoying, it is robbery, plain and simple. Sites complaining on the use of adblockers (or even denying access) have no understanding of their customers.
    I have no objections against advertising on a website, but I am in control, not the site, on what I want to accept. It is ME that decides what is acceptable and what is not. Not a site or an organisation.

  • Ian says:

    Willems comments are interesting and seem particularly valid from within many world views.

    To explain why that seems so – Ten or twelve years ago during a period of heavy volume downloading of various web pages/sites across a number of countries for analysis I began to be receive a great deal of on-line grief from an unknown source. Wishing to identify what was causing this I continued/extended the downloading varying the parameters of the addresses called (off-line browser/downloader algorithms used to filter the output address calls as the issue had not been identified as an ads problem at that time.) Whilst unable to identify the culprit(s) precisely there was a definite correlation between the volume and strength of on-line grief being received and the number of ads called. A possible conclusion from the action/reaction was that the ads industry had noticed the high volumes and was upset about having to pay for click through advertising which was obviously of no value to them. (Although I had made some identification elements available in the early stages, filtering by IP address would have been no use as the ad servers would not very often have seen a constant address.) Provided my conclusion was correct (other possible conclusions at that time, but refuted by continued testing over a number of months, was that the anonymising network(s); my ISP ; or the search engines were being adversely affected.) that particular advertising model was effectively broken leaving it potentially open to abuse. Ad blocking solved the problem for them, and saved me having to attempt to filter e-mail so intensely, whilst at the same time constantly focusing on ignoring the other attempted methods of influence without loosing sight of portions of my life and still continuing the research. If my final conclusion was correct; And it was consistently supported by the outcomes of testing and validation over several months and certainly has been since, it was in the advertising industries own interest that in the work I was doing at that stage I effectively blocked ads. A strange situation indeed, which would have been even stranger if I had received an open and direct request to help them by not downloading advertisements. Ignoring the different world views and ethics of that situation one generically clear factor would be that a privacy type mechanism (online anonymity) was being used by an organisation or sector to protect its own interests at the expense of others. A question that arose in my mind at the time was – is a might is right mentality a healthy way to live or does that approach merely continually hide difficulties and stress?

    • Ian says:

      Forgot, The new influence of my work method also affected some other researchers in the area I was working who also had to adapt, but they were not the main cause.

  • Rachel Cass says:

    As I read the article, I tried to think about the advertising I see as I browse the internet. I believe it has gone farther than using AdBlocker. I would say the majority of the time I do not even notice advertisements any longer. I am a heavy internet user and stick to generally the same sites. I use internet for work, pleasure and online schooling. It is like second nature to ignore ads, I don’t even notice them as much. It is rare that I come across an ad on a site that is noticeable and if I know a site has to much ads or annoying ones, I do not use it any longer. I have noticed on Facebook that it will pop in ads for site I have browsed recently, for example: I looked at a shirt on webpage A, the next day when checking my FB the webpage A is in my feed showing me exactly what I looked at the day before. I understand they are trying to remind me what I searched for or looked at but I didn’t buy it the first time for a reason and this reminder will not make me go back and look again.
    We are able to block advertisements not only online, but with television and video streaming. We now can skip over them with our DVR or paying by paying extra on sites like Hulu or Netflix to watch television with no ads. The real question is what will the advertisers do to get their product to the people?

  • Anthony E Thorogood says:

    The way it works is that business has to have the freedom to operate and do business including advertise BUT the human being, the consumer, the customer equally has the right to access a business’s products and to listen to their advertising or not to. I have been in business, business try to attract customers but they do not have the right to ram their advertising down peoples throats, it is a game out their a jungle and the customer and not the business has the right to decide what they will buy and not buy what they will read and not read!!!

  • Jesper says:

    Great read. But I have to disagree with the verdict. The problem is that AdBlock *won’t* create better ads. In fact, it’s already doing exactly the opposite.

    I make “native advertising” for a large agency. My team specializes in advertising “dressed up” as news content. Yes, users don’t know it’s advertising. But is that better? I’d say, not at all. At times it’s genuinely scary.

    And the media knows this. They can, anytime they want, jump over 100% to native advertising content. But they know as well as we do that it will destroy news media forever.

    Which is why they’re pursuing options like PageFair, AdPush and BlockAdblock.com to force ads through or encourage whitelisting. The arms race is going to be the end result of blocking ads. And if the arms race fails, you should all be worried. Because when ads truly do get blocked en masse, is when the media crosses the Rubicon and goes 100% native ads. And that’s a disaster.

  • Paulo says:

    Great post but I think that all of us that are really concerned with privacy and monetizing should take a step back and question if most of the content that we are reading on the web is delivered through advertising (the content is produced to create a context for advertising) and not the oposite (ads delivered by the content type)

  • kdm says:

    “Reklame” is polluting the world, our eyes, ears, minds and thoughts.
    It should be called a crime.
    Things that human beings really need and want (and can pay for) need no ‘Reklame’.
    Avoid to buy all the products that need to make ‘Reklame’.

  • fnord says:

    One argument for ad blockers often looked over is the possible use of (buyable) ads as system for targeted deployment of security exploits and malware.

    One thing that protects the average user from typical cyber criminals (not state-scale adversaries) is the fact that most people only ever visit a fixed set of websites that are mostly trustworthy and, unless compromised, will not try to exploit security glitches in their browser.
    Therefore, a cybercriminal without control over the possible victims DNS or some other way to MITM their webtraffic will not be able to influence the content their browser gets to see.
    However, some ad (re)selling sites allow just about everyone to buy an ad and deliver almost any kind of content that is disguised sufficiently well as legitimate ad (for instance, javascript- or flash-based exploits toolkits) into the browser of victims that are browsing one of their usual trustworthy websites.

    Cybercriminals can even leverage the tracking and ad targeting services provided by the ad platforms to target their attacks against an attractive audience.
    This kind of attack may then become very hard to detect or protect against; and even a browser that is completely updated can have unfixed security holes in it that are available in commercial exploit kits.

    Unfortunately, this is also not a purely theoretical attack vector; this has actually been used in the past, for example to deploy exploits and malware from the official update site for oracle’s jre.
    Therefore, surfing on the web with unblocked ads may actually increase your attack surface in practice.

    So, a web developer should probably reconsider whether it is worth losing control over what the user (or their browser, because these attacks to not need to be visible to the user) actually sees when visiting the website, and people should probably think twice before enabling externally provided ads, especially active-content ads (javascript, flash, java or other plugins), even on a site that they trust and want to support by whitelisting.

    And, personally, I think this argument may outweigh the annoyance factor, the waste of bandwidth or theft of attention, at least if this kind of attack becomes more widespread:
    Nobody likes to put their userbase at risk.

  • chrysophylax says:

    Most websites don’t give you the option to pay them directly.

    What a pity. I would have used a flattr button if i had found one.
    Thanks for the article!


  • Sick of a Lifetime of Adverts says:

    If the advertisers want me to look at their stuff then they should jolly well pay me for my attention. They can start by sending me $1.00 for every advert they manage to get past my adblockers. Prices and availability subject to change without notice.

  • Sick of a Lifetime of Adverts says:

    If the advertisers want me to look at their stuff then they should jolly well pay me for my attention. They can start by crediting my broadband account $1.00 for every advert they manage to get past my adblockers. Prices and availability subject to change without notice. They can f***ing subscribe to me if they want my attention that badly.

  • Confused Reader says:

    I love your article! You wrote down, what I was feeling for a long time!

    A propos feelings: Why is there a f*ck**g facebook button on this page???

  • Ian says:

    Considering all the points presented there is one area which nobody has so far mentioned and that is security of the nation state.

    If ad-blockers and anti tracking mechanisms were not available to the general public, those organisations/state actors who did use mechanisms of a similar type as a necessary part of their work would be very clearly visible to the commercial tracking/profiling companies putting them and their work at direct risk.
    From that perspective, blocking ads and tracking mechanisms could be seen as supportive of the security of those bodies/people because it would facilitate anonymity within the crowd of other users.
    (I include both officially approved state actors and officially disapproved state actors in the above.)

    An argument then exists that increasing the pool of users of ad-blocking and anti tracking mechanisms is more in the interests of nation states than against them.

  • Wourghk says:

    Unfortunately, employing means to block advertisements has only encouraged more divisive methods to gouge money from consumers.
    Now, instead of advertisements, applications are designed to exploit your wallets with micro-transactions and subscription fees using slightly varied Skinner box paradigms.

    Numerous sites and applications now follow this formula: a small preview of the product’s contents, followed by “click here to subscribe and get the rest! (credit card required)”, and after paying, you’re eventually met with “this product is only available to premium credit-spender users, click here to upgrade your subscription and receive 1000 credits to start”, and then “this product is only available as part of an exclusive bundle, click here to unlock it and all other related products for 1100 credits (you don’t have enough credits for this purchase – click here to buy more)”, and so on.

    It was mentioned in the article that digital products are primarily designed to capitalize on the user’s time, as if the user was unaware of their mortality. Lately, that focus has shifted, and products now rely on users being aware of their own limitations and so offer artificial conveniences at hiked prices instead. This has been demonstrated to work well, especially (and somewhat ironically) in video games.

    This isn’t to say that advertisements are the lesser of evils and should have been embraced instead, but it’s clear that most digital product and service designers have never had pro-consumer intentions, and as long as they continue to succeed (which they will) exploitation efforts will only become more invasive and pervasive.


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