A few thoughts on ad blockers — September 19, 2015

A few thoughts on ad blockers

Marco Arment, of Instapaper and Tumblr and coffee-geekery (his app company is called Full City) and much general lovableness fame, introduced a web-tracker-blocking app for iOS 9 the other day. It was called Peace. A day later he wrote a blog post agonizing over some of the trackers he was blocking. Today he straight-up removed the app from the store.

I can’t speak to his motivations, but it seems like he’s agonizing over the decision to treat all web trackers as identical and block all of them. I surmise that he got some push-back from various content networks that believe they’re the good guys. And I don’t doubt that not all trackers are created equal. But this withdrawal says something a lot more worrying to me: that people are having a hard time choosing the end-user over the advertiser.

I’ve never understood the ad-supported web. I don’t understand how anyone makes any money off of web ads, when virtually no one I know clicks on ads. Yet I’m told that one of the first things they teach you, upon your being hired at Google, is that you are not the user: there are lots of people who just spend all day clicking on ads. Somehow an entire economy is based on this.

Fundamentally that economy is for the advertisers; it’s not for you and me. As the aphorism goes, “If you get something for free, you are not the customer; you’re the product.” All those ads being served up to you are you being sold to someone else. And of course no one wants to see ads on their screens; this is obvious. Ads are a thing that we’re told we need to suffer through in order to enjoy the free web. (If I never click on an ad, am I stealing? What if I click on an ad but never buy the advertised product?)

No wonder, then, that people install ad blockers and tracking-blockers like Peace. Yet Marco seems to worry that he’s taking money out of the hands of innocents. I don’t see the moral concern here: he has a choice between doing the end-users’ bidding and doing the advertisers’ bidding. I thought he knew that he was choosing to do the end-users’ bidding.

What worries me more is that there will always be a temptation to take money with both hands. Search Google News for an article titled “Google, Microsoft and Amazon pay to get around ad blocking tool”, or check out my cached copy. Sure, you can earn money from users paying you, but you can earn even more money if you have the users pay you and you take some money from the advertisers. Sort of like the New York Times: I happily pay them $15 a month, almost as a charitable contribution, because I view them as a social good, yet they still serve me ads. I want the Times‘s loyalty to be entirely directed at me, just as I want Marco and the AdBlock people to be indivisibly on my side. Is that too much to ask?

Depending upon how you look at it, it’s either fortunate or disheartening that we have, broadly, two wildly opposed business models: the Apple model, which is “pay us money and we’ll make something you love”; and the Google model, which is, “pay us nothing and we’ll give you a beautiful product while spamming you and making our money from garbage peddlers.” (Merlin Mann put it better in less than 140 characters.) I understand how the Google model spreads to pay for the web, of course: a new startup wants to build its user base quickly, so it offers its product for free. Ideally, to my mind, a company that has established itself and gained that user base would then stop the ads and ask its users to pay. It hasn’t happened yet, and it may never happen, and I can see why it wouldn’t happen, but still: a man can dream.

(How much would you be willing to pay for the full suite of Google services? How much is it worth to you, every month, to get Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail, and Google Docs? That’s never a choice you’ll ever have to make, of course: if Google ever put its search engine behind a paywall, you’d make do and switch to Bing; you’d use the inferior-but-I’m-told-improving Apple Maps; you’d use Yahoo Mail, which I guess is a thing that still exists; you’d use whatever the Microsoft cloud office suite is called. But if I measured the actual value that instant search, instant travel-planning, high-quality email, and cloud documents add to my life, it couldn’t possibly be less than $200 a month.)

Sites are now blocking you from using them until you disable your content blockers. I noticed this the other day when I tried to watch the first episode of the new Stephen Colbert late show; I had to disable either AdBlock Plus or Ghostery for that specific site to make it work. This is all turning very silly.

Since I know how corrupting the ad-supported business model is, I try my damnedest to pay for things that are important to me. John Oliver’s show is worth at least $15 a month to me, so I happily pay for HBO Now. I pay for the New York Times, and I’d gladly pay for the Boston Globe if the site didn’t do everything in its power to prevent me from giving them money. I listen to a ton of podcasts, and my life would be appreciably worse without This American Life or Radiolab, so I donate $20 a month to the former and $15 a month to WNYC. It’s possible I’m overpaying. But it’s also likely that a lot of people don’t/can’t pay for these things, so I like to think that I’m paying for a few people who can’t afford it.

I wish there weren’t this natural tension between what readers want and how writers make money; I wish that charging people money for consuming goods and services weren’t considered a bold business idea. But for now there is such a tension, and people largely don’t pay. I’m going to continue using ad-blocking software, and I’m going to hope that more software developers realize where their allegiances should lie.