Are ad-blockers killing the media?

1 July 2016
Only in en
In an exchange dealing with critical issues of both sustainable media strategy and privacy, Matthias Streitz, managing editor of Spiegel Online in Germany, argues that ad-blockers merely aggravate the current crisis in which the media finds itself; while Richard Tynan, technologist for Privacy International, insists that people have a right to protect themselves and their data.

This article is a highlight from the 250th issue of Index on Censorship, which is dedicated to exploring the increasing threats to reporters worldwide. Cover artwork: Ben Jennings.

Matthias Streitz: Imagine a customer walking into a bar, ordering a daiquiri and then smugly refusing to pay for it. If you consume our content, you must allow us some means of monetization.
Software now exists to allow websites to see who is using an ad-blocker, and either restrict their access or offer them alternative ways to view. Sites in Germany, such as Bild.de and Geo.de, have already gone down this road, and justifiably so. They offer users the chance to subscribe to a paid-for, ad-free version of the site, or suggest they make use of ad-blockers’ “whitelists”, which allow users to select which publishers can show them adverts. If they don’t do either, the site will be inaccessible to them, but still free to those not using ad-blockers.
Richard Tynan: If someone is prevented from accessing content without providing something in return, it can hardly be called free.
Online advertisements are bits of computer code that are able to track a user’s browser history, interests, and sometimes even location. For that reason, when users visit websites with advertisements, those websites are compelling them to give large amounts of personal data to advertisers – or to the third-party companies that deliver them.
In the modern digital age, ad-blockers are not just about blocking ads. They are an automated way for users to retain control over who they communicate with, and for minimizing the amount of data companies collect on users’ online patterns. The anti-adblock side have no shortage of analogies that are either an attempt to conceal reality or show ignorance about how the internet works.
Online ads can also pose security risks. They trigger software to run on a user’s device, and that software may have security holes that could be exploitable. It is for each individual to assess these risks and make decisions about their own security. The content provider will not be the one to suffer if a user’s identity is stolen. It is irresponsible for anyone to undermine the safety of their users. This is particularly true when they have not conducted a detailed assessment of all the risks or threats.
Security and privacy concerns aside, there are also legitimate user-experience issues. These include endless pop-ups, annoying audio that appears out of nowhere, and general web-browser lag that slows down a user’s online experience.
MS: I share some concerns about tracking, and we, as an industry, need to be more alert to these issues. But some fears of tracking are overblown. I don’t think that the amount of personal data surrendered by online users amounts to much if you compare it to that amassed by phone manufacturers.
I’m convinced there are well-intentioned folk in ad-blocker companies who really believe they’re fighting for consumers’ rights or against user tracking. But I’d say that adblockers have become, intentionally or not, enemies of free-of-charge, small or mid-scale media. They certainly add unwanted complexity to the crisis we’re already in, which has arisen from the shift to mobile, declining ad revenues, and the migration of users to platforms like Facebook. We can calculate the damage ad-blockers do to our business in pretty precise and substantial monetary figures. Plus, ad-blockers help skew the debate: many readers now, weirdly, feel they’re taking the moral high ground by blocking ads.
RT: Decisions about what to publish are for the content providers to make, and decisions about what to watch, read or hear are for the user.
Rather than destroying the media, adblockers can ensure it stays more free. Websites that have relationships with specific advertisers may be hesitant to publish certain content, and may be less likely to criticise those who pay for ad space. Ad-blockers largely eliminate this issue, and force content providers to reexamine their business model and communication strategy.
The logic of the antiblocking crew is strange if you extend it. In the analogue world, have we engaged in ad-blocking if we skip TV advertisements, or leave the room during ad breaks?
It is difficult to see how anyone can be forced to engage with any content, including ads. Therefore, technical means to automate or assist this process must surely be welcomed.
Whether due to Edward Snowden’s revelations about government mass surveillance or the uncovering of unscrupulous practices used by ad agencies and other platforms, users are rightly concerned about their safety online, and wish to limit their susceptibility to tracking and hacking. Incidentally, content producers, such as news outlets and any journalist worth their salt, now recognize that they too require the ability to conduct research and communicate online without being tracked.
We have even seen recently that publishers who try to detect the use of ad-blockers by extracting information from a user’s machine without the user’s consent may be infringing EU law. To detect an ad-blocker, the service must interrogate the user’s device and covertly extract information about the device. This is exactly what malware does. Publishers should not be extracting data from our devices without our consent.
Users should consider investing time in a good firewall that will take care of the ads as well as many other safety issues inherent with the Internet.
MS: Firstly, to suggest that that ad-blockers help ensure a free media by eliminating conflict of interest with advertisers is either a deliberate provocation or a sign of ignorance about how our business works. Our staff writers, in almost all cases, aren’t even aware of who will advertise alongside their articles – and knowing the advertiser in the other cases usually has the effect of making them even more critical, not more pliant.
The whole situation is very complex, and responsibility for fixing the problem is spread all around. Legislators and courts can help by clarifying the rules of the game. German publishers, arguing that ad-blocking violates copyright law, have made legal attempts to stop the company Eyeo from distributing their ad-blocker, Adblock Plus. Their initial challenges failed, but they are fighting on in other cases. Publishing house Axel Springer has been more successful: for instance, it proved in court that its tabloid site Bild.de is entitled to prevent ad-blocker users from consuming its content free of charge. So the legal battle is far from over.
Ad tech companies and publishers must identify where they’ve gone too far and eliminate excesses, such as really obnoxious ads or excessive tracking of user behaviour. Wireless carriers must resist easy answers and refrain from blocking ads wholesale. Adblocker companies could clearly help by just going out of business!
RT: Some ad-blockers are certainly flawed. Some now operate at the network level (meaning via your broadband provider or mobile phone carrier). This removes the autonomy of a user to make decisions about what content they do or do not see. If carrier- level ad-blockers do not show ads, and the user cannot control which ads they see, this could be a form of censorship.
Some ad-blockers have also been found to allow advertisers to pay for ads to be visible even when an ad-blocker is active. Such behaviour betrays the trust of the user.
But we have also seen how the British intelligence agency, GCHQ, exploits online advertisements and apps as a way to track users’ web browsing.
In the world post-Snowden, more and more people are demanding their data not be exploited and are downloading tools that protect their data. While ad-blockers should not be considered completely secure or a total solution to online tracking, they offer users one way to disrupt the endless flow of data being collected on their digital lives. At times it feels like our devices, networks and services are hardwired to betray us. Understanding how online ads track users, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of ad-blockers, will help ensure that the internet remains more than just a place to boost advertisers’ profits.

Published 1 July 2016

Original in English
First published in Index on Censorship 2/2016

Contributed by Index on Censorship
© Matthias Streitz, Richard Tynan / Index on Censorship / Eurozine

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