Adblockers – Three Dirty Little Secrets

Something is definitely up when content creators and pirates are complaining about the same thing.

That “something” is ad-blockers, their subterfuge; and they have everyone from national newspapers or AdNetworks to pirates all crying foul.

The “Adblockalypse”, as it’s been called is so severe that threatens to force yet another rethink of the entire web advertising model. The adblockers are running amok and proving to be highly divisive in all corners of the web.

The plugins like Blockr, AdblockerPlus (ABP), and Unblocker suppress ads from websites; while they are countered by publishers like Channel4 UK, DN Sweden, who refuse to show content to anyone with an ad-block plugin installed. Checkmate? Not quite, because here’s the flip – there are now scripts available that can block these publisher anti-adblock scripts! That’s correct. You can block the publisher adverts then install a script to circumvent the publisher anti-ad-block-check!

The entire ad-blocking universe is wholly unregulated yet a sublime cat-and-mouse chase. And it is forcing the question if there is an implied acceptance to exposure of adverts as a form of payment for free access to content.

Newspaper publishers say they need adverts to fund quality journalism (no mention of clickbait), while the pirates claim adverts contribute towards running costs. It’s estimated that 200m users currently block ads.

In a bigger shuffle of the pack, Apple has released an iOS update which offers ad-blocking as standard. Something thought to be a dig at Google’s core advertising led business model. If true, then ad-blockers are a pip-squeak by comparison.

Dirty Little Secrets of Web Publishers

Blocking exists partly because of a couple of dirty little secrets from Adland themselves.

Firstly advertisers don’t trust publishers to report ad-impressions accurately and fear fake traffic and falsified clicks. It’s reckoned 3% of ad traffic is fake. Publishers therefore routinely use independent counters known as ad-servers to report the traffic. Ad-server companies are classic middlemen who slice, dice and rehash traffic for selling on in secondary exchanges. It’s big business. However, if publishers served their own ads the ad-blockers would struggle and need to block every image on every site across the web, which is less enticing for users. So as things stand, a blocker merely suppresses the few hundreds of the main ad-server URLs whilst whitelisting those who pay to remain unblocked.

Secondly, as the price of an impression has fallen, the need to inflate the value of visits has increased. This means publishers scoop up vast quantities of visitor data, re-segment it and sell-on the traffic that has not yet happened. It’s traffic arbitrage and the “futures market” of your upcoming surfing!

Unsurprisingly users are more aware of this nefarious analytics profiling and are using the browser plugins to defend some of their privacy and dent the data gold rush. Come to think of it, perhaps we should refer to ad-block plugins as “anti-tracking plugins” because the AdblockPlus plugin alone is reported to nuke more than 8,600 different trackers — cookies, scripts and tracking pixels.

This rapid uptick in ad circumvention tools is reported to hurt the smaller sites the most. In the UK, Ad blocking was up 82% or 12 million users (one fifth of the UK population), while it jumped 48% in USA to 45 million active users over 2014 to June 2015.

Given AdBlockers cut out ads from loading, impressions are not recorded and the publishers are therefore not paid. It’s reckoned $22bn is lost by publishers. To the users, no adverts also means no tracking.

German media conglomerate Axel Springer has opened a new legal challenge against the makers of plugin for iOS (despite all previous German anti-Adblock court cases favour of ABP).

Dirty Little Secret of Pirates

Without irony many pirate sites won’t allow access to the wares, if an ad-block is present in the browser. Everything has a price to pay, including “free pirated” content. Aggressive adverts, cookie stuffing, codecs with questionable payloads or drive-by browser Trojans are that price on many ad funded streaming and download sites are a few of the currencies. The dirty little secret of pirates is you are expected to pay, one way or another.

Dirty Little Secret of Adblockers
Sure, on one hand the plugins and apps do a great job of blocking ad-tracking codes and speeding up websites. Where they fall foul of their own brilliance however, is by charging publishers to go onto a whitelist and keep their adverts unblocked.

But, if only it was that simple! Publishers then need to apply and meet the criteria for the unregulated “Acceptable Ads Programme” which is administered by an independent entity under contract to the major player AdBlockerPlus (ABP). Once accepted, it’s then possible to just pony-up dollars to have your site’s adverts show.

This “pay to play” is occurring in an era of much disdain towards any sort of traffic-throttling or non-neutrality of net, meaning the success of adblockers is contrary to the politique du jour in regards Russian style zil-lanes for Ads.

Some believe that ABP, Peace, Adblock Fast, Crystal and alike are better understood as “tracking script blockers”, in that they offer and reintroduce an element of user privacy. Yet, in the same way that he Ghostery claims to protect privacy, (though harvests your browsing history etc.), so too do the Adblockers embellish the trade-off. You are therefore just trading being tracked by many for being tracked by one. Oh, and there is still the extortion of whitelists.

From the user point of view, you get what you pay for and if the online content industry is reliant on churning out hot-takes, photo galleries, social media wraps or clickbait to pay the bills, then stop for a minute and imagine what these publishers will serve up when they can’t pay the bills in the post “Adblockalypse” clickbait-Armageddon.

So far there have been two certainties to online life: spam and tracking; so be careful what you wish for in the post ad funded internet!