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The ethics of modern web ad-blocking (marco.org)
260 points by kyleslattery on Aug 11, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 243 comments



What I really can't understand, that permeates this whole discussion, is plenty of people that try to sell the idea that ads let us have content "for free", and that all we have to tolerate is "a little annoyance".

It's insane. If companies are buying ad-space, it's because they expect to get more business in return. This means that someone out there is being influenced by said ads, so that if the content cost X to put up online (hosting, funding its creation), someone is paying X+(ad company overhead) for it.

If these costs are being borne evenly, then it's complete societal waste. We could pay X for the content, and not incur the overhead. If these costs are not borne evenly, and some people are paying for the consumption of more disciplined people, it's probably contributing to terrible cycles of poverty (ie: some kid spending money on fancy new shoes he doesn't need and can't afford is paying for a well-paid tech-users YouTube habits, because it preys on their lack of education). Either way it's terrible.

Advertising isn't free. Insofar it works, for some people, it's basically coercive via psychology and simulated peer pressure.


Dude, I've been trying to spread this exact understanding on HN for years[1]. You would think that this crowd would get that there is no free lunch. But cognitive dissonance is powerful:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

I've been tracking this debate (or, until recently, lack thereof) for years and no one is articulating this well, myself included. Specifically, no one is articulating how this doesn't even make sense from an economics perspective.

I'm glad Marco Arment is supporting ad blocking, but he fails to see the how bad the ad-supported business model is for the web and how much it costs society. He's an intelligent guy, so I suspect it's for the reason Upton Sinclair put so well. "I make most of my living from ads," Arment writes.

Let's work on articulating this better together? Email me! Anyone else interested is welcome too.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4245427, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8585237, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9961761


On HN, I've recently seen less "complaining about ads" and more "complaining about hostile UX modals and popovers to force ad clicking." Which is fair.


> I've been tracking this debate (or, until recently, lack thereof) for years and no one is articulating this well, myself included. Specifically, no one is articulating how this doesn't even make sense from an economics perspective.

That sounds like very bad economics. Because a) Either the spending power of the population is constant. In that case, there is no cost (for consumers), because they don't spend more, they just spend differently. b) Or, spending power increases as a function of amount of ads. In that case, there is no cost (for consumers), because their increase in spending due to ads is precisely offset by the increase in spending power.

Unless you are somehow suggesting that people would just insanely accumulate wealth, instead of spend their income, if only there where no advertising.


The reasoning goes (and I have absolutely no idea if there is an element of truth to this or not so don't hold this against me) that advertising increases the velocity of the total amount spent and as such can actually increase the size of the total economy. So even if people do not insanely accumulate wealth it does leave their pockets faster essentially causing a decrease in total savings.


> So even if people do not insanely accumulate wealth it does leave their pockets faster essentially causing a decrease in total savings.

That argument doesn't sound right to me. From an a priori standpoint (and I am happy to accept a posteriori arguments, i.e. studies), people will on average invest a fixed percentage of their income into long-term savings (i.e. pension) and the rest on various goods. I read your "people do not accumulate wealth" as a general agreement to that premise. But if that's the case, then there really is nothing bad going on here. Your total spending power is independent of whether you buy one large good A, or instead a series of smaller goods B that sum to A.

The latter is, what I interpret as your "increase in velocity of spending". But that has no negative impact on you as a customer, whereas it is good for the economy, no? Because money that is churned in the economic cycle produces wealth, whereas money standing still doesn't.

And that's what I mean by my alternatives: Either my premise is true, in which case your total spending power won't really change and advertising only redistributes this spending power amongst several competing companies. Or my premise is false, in which case advertising would cause us to sacrifice long-term savings in pensions for short term satisfaction for buying goods (which might be bad).

But I see no reason, a priori, why that premise should be false. It actually sounds pretty ridiculous to me, tbh.

Overall, my (very limited) understanding of economics for this problem is based on two rough fundamental principles: a) The amount of value (≈ money after accounting for inflation) in the economy is more or less constant (i.e. people have more or less "money you need to afford food and shelter"xC, where C is a constant). And b) Money produces wealth, when it is spent (i.e. is exchanged for goods).


Given that people are going in debt to buy stuff they don't need I think there may actually be a point to the reduced savings. Advertising and cheap credit go hand in hand.


Yeah it's a really simple argument that many choose not to understand. The more ad blocking the better until Advertisers and Publishers come to grasp wit UX. I'm quite tired of the tracking and bandwidth today's ads consume. Looking very forward to iOS9.


Well yes he does make most of his current income from ads - mostly from his podcast. But he made most of his wealth from his equity in Tumblr as the first developer. He also sold Instsgram to another company and makes money from the OverCast app.


He created Instapaper, not Instagram. He sold it to Betaworks.

They've been doing great work with it lately and have a solid subscription business model now.


> If these costs are being borne evenly, then it's complete societal waste.

That doesn't make sense.

You are saying because User reads Content, Advertiser pays Content, and User pays Advertiser, that the middle step of Advertiser paying Content is unnecessary, because User could pay Content.

Simple counterexample: I like reading techcrunch, but would never pay for it. But I might see an ad for a new device that I like and would pay for, on techcrunch. If I click through the ad and buy it, then everyone wins. Techcrunch makes money from me, who would never pay them directly, because the advertiser pays them, and the advertiser makes money, because I buy their product.


See, I really like markets, and I have a problem with phrases like:

> I like reading techcrunch, but would never pay for it.

Sounds to me a lot like Mitt Romney talking about how his wife has the most important job in the world, but she's essentially his unpaid housewife. Sounds hollow.

You are paying for techcrunch, by buying products advertised on it. It would be good for the finances of everyone in society to know exactly how much. If the product company could slice prices in half because their arms-race marketing budget is soaring, maybe you'd change your mind and pay techcrunch directly, so that you, techcrunch, and the R&D department of the product benefit, while marketing stops soaking up a large chunk of the money exchanged.


>See, I really like markets, and I have a problem with phrases like:

>> I like reading techcrunch, but would never pay for it.

Like most people in the world I can't trade time for money beyond a certain threshold AND I can't usually use that money and earn it simultaneously. While my attention is also limited it's something I can split so many people can pay for a small portion of my attention while I am simultaneously using whatever those fractions of attention are paying for.

Thats why "What I'll Spend Money On" is not the same as "What I Like" (in this case, there are of course various other situations in which they are different for other reasons)


Costs don't drive prices though. Products are priced at whatever the consumer will pay, and if they won't pay enough then the product doesn't get made.

Price competition is an idea that exists but it's plan Z for any business. It's the last resort when you can't produce a superior product or find another niche that justifies higher margins. Think AMD vs Intel here.

No sane businessman has ever woken up and decided to slash his profit margin just for the hell of it. You can tell by the fact that businesses make profits - that wouldn't happen with perfect competition.

Nobody wants to be the low-margin high-volume product, because you're only a bad quarter away from low-margin low-volume. And once you're in it, it's a really hard pit to climb out of.


The problem is that nobody is asking the actual market value of their product. TechCrunch would probably want subscribers to pay north of $5/month. But the actual marketing value (in ad revenue) that they are currently able to extract from a single reader is probably closer to $0.50/year - if that.

You solve the micropayment problem and then we can talk about what I'm willing to pay for content.


Mozilla Research put the entire web's advertising revenue at $12.70/month per user[1]. In other words, if they are right we are living with the consequences of advertising for a mere $13/month, $13 dollar they still get from us anyway because it's baked into the prices of the advertised products.

> You solve the micropayment problem

We hackers and technologists here at HN are the "You".

"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks." – Jeff Hammerbacher, fmr. Manager of Facebook Data Team, founder of Cloudera

As I put it here a couple of weeks ago[2]:

You're putting all the responsibility on the consumer, and none on us, the technologists, the so-called innovators. Where are our innovative powers to come up with alternate busniness models? Where are our backbones to stand up against selling out the internet so that we can get rich quick?

Because that is what the advertising business model is: a get rich quick scheme. Undercut the straight up competitors that charge for their product by fooling consumers into thinking you're offering what the other guy is offering, but for free. Come on, who could turn down that?

The saddest thing about Hacker News is that we all get behind radical things like FOSS (Bill Gates called it un-American) and Snowden, and fight SOPA and NSA violations of privacy, but because too many of our salaries depend on advertising revenue, our cognitive dissonance blinders go up lightning fast.

-

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8586294

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9961761


> In other words, if they are right we are living with the consequences of advertising for a mere $13/month, $13 dollar they still get from us anyway because it's baked into the prices of the advertised products.

I am sorry, but I can not understand what's the problem with that. I can put out my content for free, everyone, regardles of economic situation can consume it. Prices will increase accordingly, but it won't affect everyone equally. The food you need to put on your table to survive, your electricity and your water doesn't have as large a chunk in the advertising budget as the latest iPhone, Macbook or random technology product. So at the absolute worst, the people buying luxury products subsidize people who wouldn't be able to afford my content otherwise. What's so bad about that?

Another implicit assumption that is very questionable for me as a non-economist is: The overhead the advertising company gets doesn't disappear. In general money doesn't disappear. It gets spent on the employees of the ad-company, which increases spending power and is good for the economy (?). It's a bit like energy. The amount is mostly constant, it's the fact that we move it around that creates value. The absolut worst you can do with your money, is not spending it. Because it can't create value like that.


Why assume there would be less overhead without the ads?

With ads, there is also probably less friction visiting unknown sites; clicking to a site with too many ads and then just closing it is probably a better experience than knowing you blew $0.05 on crap content (I'm not saying getting frustrated about $0.05 makes sense, I'm saying it will probably happen).


You and dragonwriter are missing my point about innovation, and also greatly underestimate the overhead cost of the advertising-publisher industrial complex.


I didn't make an estimate, I asked you to justify your assertion.


> Mozilla Research puts the entire web's advertising revenue at $12.70/month per users[1]. This means that is the most we'd have to pay on average if could just pay directly (and in fact less if because all the overhead and externalities go away).

Direct payments have overhead and externalities (aide from simply payment processing overhad, consider that instead of providing content to all comers with accompanying ads, content providers have to have paywalls -- to stop the content from getting taken for free -- and find some way of promoting content to those who haven't yet paid to convince them to pay for it.) Neither the paywalls nor the promotional efforts are free of cost.


> Sounds to me a lot like Mitt Romney talking about how his wife has the most important job in the world, but she's essentially his unpaid housewife. Sounds hollow.

No, he's actually saying that raising the next generation is the most important job in the world. aka, Mom. And I think he's right.


Most of us live in market economies. Jobs which are truly considered to be important have respect and pay well. In contrast, in the U.S. we don't even respect mothers enough to e.g. give them enough time to fully recover from giving birth before going back to work or ensure that nobody has to worry about losing their job or income if they take a sick kid to the doctor.


Man, I don't want to derail this conversation, but I have so many feelings about this issue. And they often conflict.

As someone raised in a very traditional religious environment, I am not a big fan of the market economy approach of quantifying and anonymizing roles (including that of my local grocer or 'fishmonger', to name an example).

But on the other hand, we live where we live, and in this world I figure if we don't respect mothers because their role is difficult to express in money, we should at the very least fix that and give them all the support they need, monetary, paid leave, or otherwise.


> Jobs which are truly considered to be important have respect and pay well

Correction: Jobs that return a very positive cash flow (for someone) pay well. (Teachers, Cops, Firefighters vs Brokers, Singers, Pro Athletes)


I'm not sure those examples mean what you say – e.g. teachers are allegedly important but get paid far less than your other two examples, have increasingly regimented working conditions and are popularly blamed for circumstances outside of their control. In contrast, it's far less common for anyone to e.g. go after first responders’ pay or benefits or talk about how public safety depends on breaking their union.

Unsurprisingly, that respect gradient also tracks closely which jobs are stereotypically female-dominated. Even staying in education, school administrators - historically male – get more respect for comparable levels of education and are paid more for doing less work.

Again, the point is simply that our talk isn't backed up by our actions.


He's paying lip service to that idea. As acdha points out, he's not "putting his money where his mouth is".


Sure he his. She's a stay-at-home mom. Whose paycheck bought the house, etc? His.


I think what they meant was "This job is important. So we should pay it accordingly. It is kind of hollow claiming that a job is important, but at the same time not paying it".


Yep, I get that's what was meant. It's just not logically sound.


No, paying for a website and being the reason some website is enabled to make money aren't the same things.

This is because the most important part in the whole process of wealth creation is it's incentive structure. Reducing it to the end state money distribution is like ripping a dimension off the market.


Product companies NEED advertising. Sure they could slice their prices (not in half) and not advertise. But then they would only grow by word of mouth. For some that is enough, but for most companies, it isn't enough.


In your example, there are two possibilities: either you did want and need to buy the product before the advertisement or you didn't.

In the first case, the advertisement was wasteful: the company that sold you the product has unnecessarily spent money, which goes to the product price. And this is not a small amount: big consumer companies spend billions on advertisement space/time alone, an amount comparable to their R&D expenses. I'm talking about ads alone, not other marketing expenses, many of which are related to advertisement. In most companies, marketing budget dwarves R&D, by the way, and in some markets, this costs could very well be the biggest chunk of the price in a product.

In the second case, you would not buy the product without the ad. That may mean that you simply didn't know the product before and finding it was good for you, but most probably you didn't need it or would not want it if not because of the ad.

In this common case, you didn't win: you just spent money because of a need/want that you didn't have before seeing the ad. You were hacked and exploited for both the publisher and advertiser benefit.


There's an amusing and relatively new third case where you already have bought the product, but ad servers are dumb and will spam you with ads for that product for months, because your trackers said you searched for that product once.

It's wasteful, but in an almost ironic novel way.


I wanted to mention this exact thing on one of the threads earlier today but couldn't articulate it properly.

In the UK the department stores John Lewis and House of Fraser are both guilty of this - if I browse something on either of their sites an ad for it follows me around the web for ~4 months.

E.g. I was buying Birthday gifts for my girlfriend at the beginning of July and looked on both of these sites and they are both displaying the same ads to me (i.e. at this point both are spending their advertising budget to annoy me)

What I want is this - a space where I can say "I'm looking for a picnic hamper for a gift & I want to spend between £25 & £50. I need it by date X" This can then be given to the advertisers (auctioned?) and they can display some ads to me which are relevant. When date X is reached (or I indicate that I've bought said item and am therefore out of the market) these ads stop. For added info I can even say what I bought and why - e.g. "I bought X in your store as a picnic hamper won't fit through my mailbox"

Surely this is more useful for everyone involved? I get ads which are actually being targeted based on something I control (vs. being inferred via which sites I happen to click on or what cookies are set) and the advertisers get more detailed info as well.


I believe such a thing already exists :) http://imgur.com/p6GD6kD (plus no need for a "need it by date X" feature as these ads don't follow you around everywhere!)


Actually some advertising is intended to reach people who already bought the product, to reassure them they made the right decision, and to keep buying their brand in the future (brand loyalty).


For me it was when I started playing Ever Online, for months after I would see endless banner ads for the game screaming "JOIN NOW!".

But I already had joined, and even if I wanted a second account I already know where to go to get it. Ad tech is dumb, real dumb.


For crying out loud. There's also a third option: you're researching similar products because of an existing need, and you haven't heard of $ADVERTISING_COMPANY before you saw the ad, and they turn out to have a better product than competitors.

> You were hacked and exploited

Yeah, that's not what either of those words mean.


> For crying out loud. There's also a third option: you're researching similar products because of an existing need, and you haven't heard of $ADVERTISING_COMPANY before you saw the ad, and they turn out to have a better product than competitors.

Actually, I did address that, as part of the second case:

"That may mean that you simply didn't know the product before and finding it was good for you"

>> You were hacked and exploited

>Yeah, that's not what either of those words mean.

Late response for the record: you think you're in control of your mind and how it works. But advertisers are very ingenious in developing ways to make your mind behave in a manner you (the admin) does not want it to, in a sneaky way. A very good metaphor for it is hacking.

Unfortunately, this is neither DefCon or a James Randi show, so they do not do it for fun. They explore this hack to take advantage from you (your system, if you will) for their profit and your damage. An exploit.

I did not use "literally", but I refrained from using a more strong indicator of a figure of speech (eg, using "virtually") because I though I could engage in a better debate here then this. I still think I was right, but there are always exceptions.


He might have had the need before seeing the ad but hadn't seen a solution.

Adverts are at their basic level a way of informing end users about what they can purchase. They are also there to try and raise brand awareness. People are more likely to trust a brand that they have heard of rather than some unknown.


> People are more likely to trust a brand that they have heard of rather than some unknown.

Is this a good thing?


Brand awareness is one reputation mechanism. For better or worse. ... and reputation itself is a good thing.


Not at all. Makes brands with colossal marketing budgets sell more despite there being better alternatives from small companies. But that's how human consumption works, and it's virtually impossible to change that.


In the first case, you know you need some product, but not necessarily which one. You need a pair of shoes, but are you going to get Reeboks, Nike, Asics, or what? They all serve the need you originally had, advertising is just directing you towards one or the other.


I hate it when style items like shoes are used as an example. Once you're out of your teens shopping for shoes just isn't much of an issue in real life. Real life is more like, "I need a vacuum. It needs these properties: canister, quiet, light, and a beater brush." No ad is really going to give you this information. Any ad showing a vacuum is just wasting your time. You're going to go to an objective site to compare products, not click through to some random site and purchase.

And advertisers know this so we get a host a stupid ads trying to convince you that one flavor of sugar water is better than another. Or that this poop inducing yogurt is better than that. In other words, effective ads rely on trickery to get you to think style is more important than substance.


I need a vacuum cleaner. I know a couple of companies, I research their vacuums. Still not sure what I want, then I see an add for foobar vacuums... Never heard of them, let me go research them too. By the way, for YOU, shopping for shoes isn't much of an issue, but that isn't true for a lot of other people. The other thing is a lot of people don't spend their time "going to an objective site"


>If these costs are being borne evenly, then it's complete societal waste. We could pay X for the content, and not incur the overhead. If these costs are not borne evenly, and some people are paying for the consumption of more disciplined people, it's probably contributing to terrible cycles of poverty (ie: some kid spending money on fancy new shoes he doesn't need and can't afford is paying for a well-paid tech-users YouTube habits, because it preys on their lack of education). Either way it's terrible.

Advertising isn't a complete societal waste. If I find a way to compete with an established business by offering the same product at a lower cost, or a better product at the same cost, or a new product that is worth the money but no one had thought of before, my only hope to connect people to that product (not to mention make myself money) is through advertising. Word of mouth and objective reporting in news outlets will also do the information spreading work, but advertising does a considerable amount. In other words, it's competition increasing.

I think economists have done studies on markets with and without advertising and have found results indicating it does bring down costs in those markets by increasing competition [1]. In economic terms that would be a gain since without advertising we would consume an inefficiently low amount of said product. Note that even if there is a gain to efficiency because of lower prices, it may be completely offset by the cost of advertising itself (costs being the cost of consumers having to be irked by looking at them and the effort that went into crafting the advertisements).

[1] Could I be remembering this paper? http://www.jstor.org/stable/724797?seq=1#page_scan_tab_conte...


Essentially, advertising is useful when you need to tell people about a new product or service. Beyond that, it's playing a game. Once people know a service exists and have been accurately informed as to its benefits, then for the most part, people will use it if they need it and spread it by word of mouth if its useful for other people (and/or they had a good experience).

Advertising beyond that mostly serves to solidify brand integrity and trust and ways to undercut competitors and is an ever growing conflagration of an arms race. It has little to do with the interests of the public.


Which do you think wins, low budget factually honest advertising or high budget advertising that builds consumer loyalty or craving using whatever psychological means necessary?

I'm pretty certain the latter wins far more often than the former, in which case advertising hurts healthy competition. You may in fact have the better or cheaper product, but the establish company has the huge advertising budget by virtue of being the established company. Advertising serves as a moat far more than it serves as a bridge.

So while the naive view is that advertising communicates the existence and benefits of products so that consumers can make informed choices, in reality it is more often and more successfully used to communicate lies and manipulation, and raise insurmountable barriers to new competition.


>and raise insurmountable barriers to new competition.

Why do we assume that the dishonest and manipulative nature of advertising would be more effectively wielded by the companies already in the market than by new ones trying to break in to the market?


Primarily 'cause they have larger budgets. And sure, a new entry into the market might innovate on advertisement instead of product, but is that what we want?


In this hypothetical, you have the superior product, so you would prefer to rely on honesty.

The alternative situation where everyone bullshits is one of the reasons people are using ad blockers.


Who pays the costs in lost efficiency, lost productivity, lost time etc for readers to wade through ads to get to content?

Saying something "lowers costs" without considering ALL costs involved is lazy.

Most smart consumers are much less interested in what a company has to say about its own products (embellishment) than about what other people say.

So yeah, advertising is pretty terrible.


I made this edit right after I posted it so perhaps you didn't see it, but I added:

"Note that even if there is a gain to efficiency because of lower prices, it may be completely offset by the cost of advertising itself (costs being the cost of consumers having to be irked by looking at them and the effort that went into crafting the advertisements)."

I think that speaks to your comment about the lost productivity of users of the web. I do think all costs should be considered, absolutely. Didn't quite follow your last two paragraphs. You seem to have a gut feeling that all the costs outweigh all the benefits? I have no such gut feeling.


While I have no strong gut feeling as to the total cost/benefit, as someone who has studied marketing and spent quite a bit of time in the sector, I get the impression the cost of advertising itself is very high, perhaps even dwarfing all the rest, comparatively.

And the industry as I've seen it is not particularly efficient/cost-effective or pleasant either. Most of the shoddiest work, unhappiest employees and shittiest bosses/manager that I've encountered were in this sector, by far. The only environment where I got a similar vibe was a bank/insurance company where I worked.


Advertising is the method most people use to discover new products/services.

Of course these days the line is often blurred. So half the posts on HN could be adverts, and you wouldn't really know about it. In fact lots of them are adverts.

But just think about how the world would work without advertising. How would you know there's a star wars movie coming out? How would you know about new products and services you might be interested in buying.

I buy quite a few magazines, and one of the reasons I buy them is for the adverts, which tell me about companies who provide things I might be interested in.

For example, I buy a bee-keeping magazine, which has many adverts related to bee-keeping. That's valuable. I buy a pig magazine, which has adverts for pig arks, pig tags, weaners, etc etc.

Good advertising is a net win for everyone. It provides us information about things we might like. Just because there's some bad advertising on the internet, it doesn't mean all advertising is useless.

What is the alternative model to advertising on the internet? The fact is, that most websites are supported by advertising, and if that goes away, so do the websites unless some other magical income model replaces it.


That's a false comparison, because there's a huge difference between ads-as-information and ads-as-empty-noise.

If you buy a trade magazine it's a given the ads will be targeted to a specific area of interest. The bad ads are simply not very interesting, and the good ads add real value to the experience by giving you useful information and/or entertaining you.

But when you turn the page, they're gone. Print ads leave you with some agency.

Most ads on the web seem to be completely untargeted. And when they are targeted, they're not targeted very well. And even if they are targeted well, they're incredibly repetitive.

Web ads don't give you agency. They treat you as a passive consumer who needs to be forced to see the same stupid banners over and over. Most of the time the banners are simply annoying. Even when they're not, they have a much lower information content than a print ad.

So unlike a print ad, which will be some combination of irrelevant, beautiful, sparsely presented, and informative, they carpet bomb your browsing experience with noisy low-value distractions.

Instead of adding to the experience, they take away from it.

And from the seller's point of view, it's damn near impossible to work out the ROI. You can't assume that view-click-sale works, because often people will research a product before buying. So you don't know if they've seen the ad once, or fifty times, or been persuaded to buy in some other way.

There certainly is an arms race, but it's gone in a completely ineffective direction.

IMO there's a lot of money to be made by bringing some intelligence back into web marketing. Instead of just spurting banners everywhere or using not-so-bright algos to do poor targeting, the ad industry might want to consider going back to ads that add value, instead of treating customers like not very intelligent prey that has to be herded down a funnel.


They are supposed to be programmatically targeted, but programmatic is not as accurate as it's billed as. They do get targeted, but a lot of the traffic that they go after is spoofed somehow or otherwise inaccurate. Models of web traffic are much less accurate than unmodeled subscriber rolls.

Lots of high end people pay out the nose for information collection and shaping. They're called assistants. Others pay for specialized newspapers and magazines for their profession. There is no such thing as 'free' media because time and attention have value. If the information is more important than the entertainment value, then you can pay someone $10-15 an hour part time to read everything that you need read and give you a digest.

You can also have an ad-free life by paying someone else to read the news for you and moving to a rural area, where there are few billboards.

Print ads tend to have better targeting because the subscriber rolls get backed up with credit card numbers in most cases. This is a case in which early 20th century technology is a lot more reliable than 21st century programmatic advertising.

>And from the seller's point of view, it's damn near impossible to work out the ROI. You can't assume that view-click-sale works, because often people will research a product before buying. So you don't know if they've seen the ad once, or fifty times, or been persuaded to buy in some other way.

Actually, you can, at a certain level of scale and spending on many platforms. That requires the user fingerprinting that bugs privacy advocates so much. It's called 'cross-channel attribution,' and there's a lot of material out there about it.

Also, it's not that users aren't intelligent. Most people are pretty dumb, but few of the people with disposable income are dumb. You use repetition because you're only getting a fragment of someone's attention, and a fragment of someone's cognition is pretty 'stupid.'


I don't need to know there's a new Star Wars movie coming out.

Scarcity seems to breed innovation, so maybe cutting the cord and creating a financial incentive will have some brilliant people come up with better models than I can for free on my spare time.

Maybe after a period of downtime, we'll all reminisce about the good old days and vote in some kind of universal internet-real-estate tax, allowing people to pledge bandwidth to people whose content they enjoy to aid in its dissemination, on a "one-person-one-attention-unit" basis. Who even knows?


>Advertising is the method most people use to discover new products/services.

Do you have a source for that?

>How would you know there's a star wars movie coming out?

By being interested in science fiction movies, being part of a community of people with like interests, theater showtimes, etc.

Why do i need to know 6 months beforehand that a star wars movie will eventually come out?

Why would i need to know any sooner than a week before the release date?

>How would you know about new products and services you might be interested in buying.

By having an interest in buying them, and then doing research regarding which product will best fit my needs.

>which tell me about companies who provide things I might be interested in

Or do the advertisements give you an itch and a tool to scratch it?

>which has many adverts related to bee-keeping. That's valuable

In what way?

Are you incapable of finding a new bee-keeping related product without first seeing an advertisement?

Can you not google the item you need and then compare the options amongst each other?

Can you not simply search on amazon or some bee-keeping friendly retailer?

Are you not part of a community of bee-keepers who you can ask for recommendations about products?

If you've ever heard of:

Costco

Krispy Kreme

Kiehls

Spanx

Lululemon

Rolls Royce

Zara

Jiffy muffin mix

NO-AD sunscreen

Then you've disproven you're entire argument, as those are all brands that have $0 advertising budget, and do no advertising.


In my industry advertising is indeed a key way in which office designers find out about new products.

One form of advertising which is commonly utilized is a yearly trade show where manufacturers rent showroom space to show off their products to prospective buyers. This model makes sense because it gets 60,000 people with purchasing power into the same building to see what products are new and what the latest design ideas are. There is no hidden agenda here and everyone knows what is going on.

This is the same basic concept as a magazine or website advertisement where you try to get a bunch of likeminded people in one industry with purchasing power to subscribe and read the magazine or website. The advertisements (paper showrooms space) are used to show cool pictures of new products companies are selling and now one is fooled by that.

In this industry, manufacturers have brand recognition and a reputation so seeing an ad for a new office chair by X company is an effective way to announce to people who already know of and like your brand that you have a new product.

Hacker News leverages its niche audience to 'advertise' job listings for Y Combinator funded companies. I could probably find out about those jobs elsewhere if I were currently looking for a job, but I'm willing to trade seeing them for using this site. I expect many other people don't mind advertising when it is tastefully done and on-topic with the website or magazine they read or are subscribed to.


Personally, I had never heard of Kiehls, Spanx, Lululemon, Zara, Jiffy muffin mix, or NO-AD sunscreen. However, I don't know if advertising would help me remember these brands better, as I don't buy their class of products often.


> Just because there's some bad advertising on the internet, it doesn't mean all advertising is useless.

The problem is it's not just some. At first, there was bounds of worthless advertising. Classical random banner ads have about zero revenue, and have had for over a decade. Instead of good advertisements, we got pop-up ads, pop-under ads, flashing animated gif ads, autoplay video ads, autoplay audio ads, ads that pretended to be native OS dialogs, link ads, … just to grab the users' attention anyway, and trick a few into buying absolute crap they didn't want. Ad networks getting used as vectors to infect computers (cf. latest Firefox/pdfjs exploit) are just the final nail in the coffin.

Print magazine ads work well because they don't try to infect me with viruses, don't try to trick me, don't make my fan run at 100%, don't drain my monthly data plan in a day (or battery in an hour), and don't keep me from reading the rest of the magazine. Had web advertisement stayed that same, I doubt we would ever have seen adblockers gain a substantial marketshare – nobody would use them if installing them was more of a hassle than just ignoring adverts.


I'd...search for things I need? Or rely on word-of-mouth via people I actually care about? (Of course, you could argue that these are also forms of advertising, in which case this argument ultimately devolves to "people hear about things most often by hearing about them".)

Or: even though it might be possible to interest me in buying said products and services, maybe I don't need/want them enough to justify the purchase, and so reducing/eliminating pervasive psychological coercion is in fact helping me to act in my rational self-interest?

Also: "most businesses are supported by X, therefore X is good and/or there is no viable alternative to X" just doesn't hold water as an argument. For instance: "most businesses are supported by chattel slavery..."; "most businesses are supported by the local feudal warlord..."; "most businesses are supported by the infinite benevolence of the Church...", and so on - failure to imagine a different model is a failure of imagination and/or historical perspective, not of existence.


A contrary (and more accurate view) is that advertising suggests things that people don't really need.

Here's a "magical alternative": if you make something the least bit good/useful, people don'e need to be beat over the head with it - they'll find it.

Advertising is vapid, inaccurate, and a blight.


> Advertising is the method most people use to discover new products/services.

Prove it. I can just as easily pull out my ass "Word of mouth and browsing in-store or online is the method most people use to discover new products/services."


If these costs are not borne evenly, and some people are paying for the consumption of more disciplined people, it's probably contributing to terrible cycles of poverty

C'mon, that isn't the only alternative.

I saw an ad for some slippers on Facebook the other day. They looked nice. I remembered I wanted some slippers for the office. I bought the slippers. I'm happy, the advertiser is happy, Facebook is happy.

Advertising is not always about unhappy or annoying endings, even if sometimes it is. In many cases it works, is ethical, and can even provide a service. In these situations, it's a great way to fund things without forcing end users to pay evenly.


You make several assumptions. "We could pay X..." but we don't. How is it a complete societal waste? When someone purchases ad time they are essentially paying for your content. They do this in hopes of selling more product. It is essentially a win/win. You get a free product, and they get more sales. From a financial perspective the marketers aren't going to sell their product for less because they don't advertise. They are spending some money to make more money. So it makes sense for them to spend the money. As far as "we could pay X for the content..." Well that is essentially what we do today, we just do it through ads. Does it contribute to a "cycle of poverty" Not really. That kid will want those fancy new shoes whether he sees it in an ad, or sees it on his friends feet. And yeah, he is helping pay for your YouTube habit. But then so are you. Even if you don't watch ads, you are still purchasing the products that generate the ads.


> It's insane. If companies are buying ad-space, it's because they expect to get more business in return. This means that someone out there is being influenced by said ads, so that if the content cost X to put up online (hosting, funding its creation), someone is paying X+(ad company overhead) for it.

Yes, and if you paid directly you'd have X+(B2C payment processing overhead) which is more than B2B.

> We could pay X for the content, and not incur the overhead.

That is really not true. Have you ever tried to support N customers instead of 20 businesses?

There are some very major costs in providing any kind of support, even if its just for billing.

You are simply unrealistic if you believe that ad companies have higher overhead than providing large scale customer support. I know someone who runs a [small] ad network and his overhead is a fraction of what it'd cost me to run a similar subscription based model.


The micropayments could be handled via one of those 20 companies. For example, it would be fairly easy for Doubleclick to have users set up an account and fund it with a few bucks, and then they'd pay TechCrunch .01 USD when the user read an article. In effect it'd be a sort of protection racket, if you don't want see any ads, pay up.


Which is why this will never be viable. Internet content providers are radio stations, not performers. They aren't going to Spotify themselves.


...and then its the same overhead because they are the ones collecting. You are just shifting who bears the cost of customer service.


Advertising is an arms race.


I thank you for your worship.

--Vishvarupa


Your logic is flawed. Advertisers advertise to increase their share of the whole economy. Every single person could spend exactly the same amount of money and even on exactly the same kind of things as before and advertising would still make sense. I am not denying, that due to advertising we shift our buying habbits. But advertising is born out of competition, it is to take a share of the spending power of people away from other companies. Spending power is pretty much a constant (at least in regards to advertising, it increases as a function of the strength of the economy).

Seriously, think about it for a second: If advertising stopped today, completely. Would you spend less money? I don't think so.


And in regards to

> if these costs are being borne evenly, then it's complete societal waste.

that is exactly what is happening. Advertising is the classical real world example for the prisoners dilemma. It is literally the reason, why game theory exists. Every company can chose to advertise (defect) or not advertise (cooperate). If no one advertises, everyone is better off. But that is not a stable equilibrium, so instead everyone is advertising, even though it incurs some cost on social wellfare.


> some people are paying for the consumption of more disciplined people, it's probably contributing to terrible cycles of poverty

You are honestly suggesting that internet advertising is contributing to poverty?


Advertising could also just make you aware of a product that you didn't know about, no? As far as I'm aware advertising can be a win for both the advertiser and the consumer.


Funding the content suffers from a tragedy of the commons problem.


Something rarely discussed is how the cost of publishing the content is imploding.

A generation ago it took a real company with full time employees to run Slashdot. In 2014 it took some volunteers and some linode instances to run SoylentNews using slashcode. In another decade you'll have people running things like /. and HN on the equivalent of a raspberry pi drawing 5 watts.

A generation ago some cool sites started as an old desktop underneath some desk, then they scaled to internet size which meant a mid size corporation. Well, for technological reasons we're scaling it back down to some legendary sites will once again run on a desktop underneath someone's desk, its just that desktop will run internet scale not mere thousands of users.

I'm not sure that society gets much value from journalists. Take corporate press release, lightly wrap in trendy breezy cliches and clickbait headline like 1000 of your closest competitors but supposedly your re-skin is better than theirs, and spam the link everywhere.

When that industry is gone, I won't miss it. Remember when the blue collars were losing their jobs and the journalists were all "ha ha not my problem go back to school"? What comes around goes around, and after the journos lose their jobs they can go back to beautician school or air conditioning repairman or whatever, "ha ha not my problem go back to school"


Something rarely discussed is how the cost of publishing the content is imploding.

You are aware that content generation isn't, in fact, a technological problem, right?

You still need folks to write the copy, edit, research and fact check, moderate discussion forums, etc.

Yes, the cost of the actual physical act of publishing copy has gotten cheaper. But high quality journalism costs money. That's unavoidable.

I'm not sure that society gets much value from journalists. Take corporate press release, lightly wrap in trendy breezy cliches and clickbait headline like 1000 of your closest competitors but supposedly your re-skin is better than theirs, and spam the link everywhere.

I hate to break it to you, but: this was caused by the internet. Two major effects are at play. First, yup, it's a lot cheaper to publish complete drek, hence the Gawkers of the world. This has caused those organizations that actually invested in content generation to have to cut costs (ask any news agency in the world... the investigative journalist is a dying breed, to everyone's detriment). The result is lower and lower quality journalism as investigation, fact checking, and so forth, is thrown out the window.

This is exactly like folks who would complain about the incompetence of government while trying to financially strangle it. And then, when that underfunded government isn't able to react to some disaster or adequately execute some social program, they use that as further evidence that government must be slashed ("look, government is so competent, yuk yuk yuk!"), while conveniently downplaying the fact that they caused the problem in the first place.

Quality journalism is dying because no one will pay for content. And no one will pay for content because of the perceived low quality of journalism. Repeat ad nauseum.


I don't disagree with anything you write in detail, in fact I think we agree that due to a massive mismatch in supply and demand, until about 99% of existing journalism is culled, nobody is going to make any money in journalism.

Maybe a good analogy is the village blacksmith is hurt and angry that he hung up advertisements on his shop wall, but nobody looks at them, and they're all going to be really sorry when there's nowhere left to put new horseshoes on because posting the spam was the only thing keeping the lights on in his shop. Meanwhile the general population drives by his shop in their cars not looking at his ads, and doesn't really care about horseshoes anyway beyond a general knowledge that everyone knows that everyone knows that horseshoes are really important culturally and a vital part of life in and of themselves, although individually no one actually likes it and no one is willing to pay for it.

And my point is something like if you "need" something horseshoe shaped for crafty project or whatever, now a days you download a .scad from thingiverse, run it thru openscad, run the .stl thru curaengine to get a .gcode, then feed the .gcode to octopi on your printer and pick up your shoe in a couple hours at a cost of about fifty cents of filament. I mean, sure, building a village size blacksmith shop to get my horseshoe would be difficult and expensive, but its unnecessary and practically no one wants horseshoes, so I'm not seeing much of a problem.


And my point is something like if you "need" something horseshoe shaped for crafty project or whatever, now a days you download a .scad from thingiverse, run it thru openscad, run the .stl thru curaengine to get a .gcode, then feed the .gcode to octopi on your printer and pick up your shoe in a couple hours at a cost of about fifty cents of filament.

You can't possibly be equating the manufacture of a simple physical metal object, something easily automated, and arguably of little valuable in a modern setting, with the creation of high quality, researched journalism, intended to inform the public.

Can you?

I mean, if you think that metaphor is at all appropriate, you've completely missed the point. Of both my own post, and of journalism in general.


Don't just assert that.

I sincerely believe that most people overestimate (or pretend to overestimate) the value of journalism, and I'm curious about why you think it isn't so.


Alas, not to bring ageism into the discussion, but I'm gonna bet that probably just means you were born in, what, the late 90s or later?

Journalism serves a vital function. It's called the "fourth estate" for a reason, and should serve to enlighten the public on the goings on of the government and the world. Journalism is one of the forces counteracting government secrecy and surveillance. Hell, journalism is what brought the Snowden revelations to light to the general public.

To do that well, you need professional writers, researchers, and fact checkers. No, a casual blogger is not a journalist. Twitter is not journalism. Tumblr is not journalism. At best those are news. At worst, gossip.

Unfortunately, we now have an entire generation who doesn't understand what real journalism actually looks like. It's a damn shame... remember, journalism brought down Nixon and helped end the Vietnam war, among many other things. Real journalism can be immensely powerful as a medium.

It is not horseshoe manufacturing.


This is turning into a classic unrecognized theoretical vs practical argument. I propose:

"Journalism could, and historically did, serve a vital function."

Exactly like horseshoe manufacturing. Just not today.

There's space for us both to be correct, in theory journalism, much like western civilization, would be a great idea to try, or maybe we had it in the past, or it would be an interesting goal for the future even if it never existed in the past beyond a mythical ideal, etc. While at the same time, in practice, we can pretty much flush the existing stuff and not miss it. For some definition of "us", we have already decided to ignore it and are not missing it. Some of the percentage of the population stats are pretty dismal.

It IS possible to gain value by debating the "why". I think you're indirectly correct WRT age (although I am quite a bit older than your theory) in that rolling all of media (including journalism) into roughly five giant corporations did very little for the quality of the craft, and the fish rots from the head down.


>"Journalism could, and historically did, serve a vital function." Just not today.

I agree that journalism isn't serving that function today, but I think that function isn't being served well at all. Not enough cars, so to speak.

What can we do so that the next Snowden doesn't have to teach basic cryptography to some out of touch horseshoe makers?


Could twitter and random blogs have stopped Vietnam and Nixon too, if they had existed back then?

And if there is something unique to journalists that make them more proficient at stopping presidents and wars, why couldn't they stop the Iraq war?

Because the powers that be coopted that power. I read the "journalists" in the early 21st century and it was depressing.

Then again, the independent bloggers and twitters have also been rendered ineffective and powerless. Nothing much came from Occupy and the Arab Spring, fur example.

We need something different.


> Could twitter and random blogs have stopped Vietnam and Nixon too, if they had existed back then?

Go read about Watergate and get back to me (though, ironically, to do that you would need to read the works of investigative journalists...).

Today, the equivalent to Deep Throat might be Snowden, and that, too, required journalists like those from The Guardian to get the story out. That kind of journalism requires resources to research, travel, for legal costs associated with protecting sources, etc.

Regarding Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers would never have been published if the Times hadn't spent their own money going to court to defend their right to publish them.

So no, I don't believe twitter or random blogs have the power of the fourth estate.

> And if there is something unique to journalists that make them more proficient at stopping presidents and wars, why couldn't they stop the Iraq war?

That's a deeply complicated topic.

First, it's worth noting journalists never stopped Vietnam from starting. But as the war was waged, journalism played a role in turning public opinion against the war after it had started, thus hastening its end.

So, with that said, journalists actually played a very similar role vis a vis the Iraq war.

Now, I do believe they were less effective than in the past, but I actually believe that's exactly on point, here: that period is the same time when journalism began to struggle in the face of the ascendance of the Internet.

Which brings me right back to my very original point: Quality journalism is dying because no one will pay for content. And no one will pay for content because of the perceived low quality of journalism. Repeat ad nauseum.

Your mistake is in believing quality journalism never existed, but that's only because of your limited perspective, having only seen the medium as it began its slow decline.


Could the reduced effectiveness of journalism be because the government has journalists too?

I saw lots of journalists in favor of the war in Iraq. Were there many journalists in favor of war in Vietnam too?

I have only seen journalists as they were already declining, but we saw the decline of independent bloggers as it happened.

What happened to amateur Internet journalism was not a market failure. It was the government's realizing that the Internet is a force multiplier, and they have a lot of force to multiply. Cue astroturfing, surveillance and the 50 cent army...

Could something similar have happened to real journalism too?


I saw lots of journalists in favor of the war in Iraq. Were there many journalists in favor of war in Vietnam too?

Of course. And just like the Iraq war, the government used control of information (like trying to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers) to attempt to maintain support among both journalists and the public.

Fortunately, with a strong journalistic community, combined with the constitution and the supreme court, the government lost. But it took time and significant resources.

Could something similar have happened to real journalism too?

Eh, journalism has always had to fight against the corrupting forces of propagandists. That's nothing new.

The difference is, a large news organization has the time and resources to fight that corruption, while a small time blogger does not.

Of course, where bloggers win is in the sheer distributed nature of their operation. That is, it's a very different thing to muzzle/corrupt a million bloggers versus a dozen newspapers.

So there are pros and cons to both models. But I think there are things traditional news sources can do that bloggers/etc simply can't. And the converse is also obviously true.


What the internet has done is remove scarcity from the equation (to a large degree). Prior to the internet, when all we had was magazines and newspapers, there was actual value in providing what you and the previous poster consider "low quality" journalism. If some of the articles in a tech magazine were little more than slightly reworded press releases, those articles still had value to me because I had no other way (i.e., no medium) to ever see a press release. Similarly, when my local city newspaper published AP articles, that had value because that newspaper was the only place I could read those articles.

Now, however, press releases are published verbatim on countless sites, show up in google searches, etc., and AP articles are published on hundreds of sites, plus Google News, and so when any one particular news site publishes any of this stuff they are providing me with essentially zero value. (It makes me laugh when I click on a link at Google News and it takes me to some newspaper's web site like the Akron Beacon-Journal and then that newspaper throws up a paywall barrier preventing me from reading the article, yet I can see that the article is from Associated Press -- why would I pay money to access content that has nothing whatsoever to do specifically with Akron, that the Akron paper had no involvement in creating, when that content is freely available on a hundred other sites?)

The second way the internet has removed scarcity is the well-recognized fact that there's now far, far more high-quality content available than any human being could possibly read, and much of that is free. Which means a publisher better be offering something really spectacularly special and exclusive, because it makes no sense for me to pay money just to increase my list of stuff that I'll never have time to read. The New York Times is an example of a site I would pay for, if they charged a reasonable amount, instead of the completely ridiculous amount they're actually charging (several hundred dollars per year) -- there's so much other good stuff to read that I'm not going to suffer any pain from not being able to read a few NYT articles a week.

Of course, if there was a workable micropayment system in place, I'd probably pay for even mediocre content, I mean, if it was a penny or something to read an ephemeral opinion column about, say, a sports team I follow, I'd do that sometimes. I'd probably pay several dollars a month even for "low-quality" content, if it relieved me of intrusive craptastic ads, but I'd never pay a whole dollar to a single low-quality publisher, let alone the $5-20 per month that a lot of paywalled sites are trying to get.


There's value to having someone with a deep understanding of a topic who can follow leads and investigate, construct a narrative out of disparate facts, and then deliver it compellingly. I guess it doesn't have to be a journalist, but you will need those same traits and I don't think that's a particularly common combination without specific cultivation. Clickbait and press releases obviously don't deliver that either, of course.

The hardware to run a site has become much cheaper, but at the end of the day it still takes a lot of hours to produce content and cultivate a community. There's a huge amount of business roles and work that you're glossing over there - from admin to overseeing content production to developer. Peer-moderator type systems like Reddit have lots of issues - even at the best of times they have a bandwagon effect that shouts down statements that are unpopular with the masses, and at worst they are very susceptible to sentiment manipulation like voter rings. I don't doubt there are "viral" marketers that provide social-media promotion services.

I'd also point out that looking at specific examples can be deceptive. Slashdot is late in its life cycle and the community has clearly decayed from its glory days. Digg probably doesn't need as many servers now either. But you'll never run a top-10 website on a Raspberry Pi - or any site whose performance you care about, for that matter.


I'm beginning to find the various articles about ad-blocking fatuous, and I doubt I'm the only one.

Ads served via a centralized vendor can be blocked trivially, and people are choosing to block them. You can make a whole lot of arguments about ethics, or you can just admit that it's a broken business model.

Worse, it is becoming apparent that ads increase the attack surface. Failing to clean that up will cause armies of IT folks to actively work against you.

Maybe the business model is that you're serving ads in a non-centralized way, or maybe you're serving centralized ads to people with locked-down computers, but good luck serving blockable ads and relying on the good graces of the population to unblock your ads out of charity.


Websites offering self hosted, static advertising isn't so much of a problem as random bits of javascript and tracking cookies loaded from god knows where every time you load a page. Harder to block, the advertiser needs to pass their content through the hoster which assures some level of quality and relevance, and some level of privacy for the end viewers.


And yet ad blockers generally try as hard as they can to block all types of ads.


Except for those that don't.


> Ads served via a centralized vendor can be blocked trivially, and people are choosing to block them. You can make a whole lot of arguments about ethics, or you can just admit that it's a broken business model.

Uhm, no, you could say that about a million things to dismiss it as unimportant and "just do it".


Similarly, I've wondered why advertisers don't just change how they do the ads: if the ads are non-standard size, are non animated, and link back to a legit landing page from non/shady domain, what adblocker covers that? Wouldn't that just look like ordinary site content? Or do they really update them that quickly and narrowly?


Most ads are served by an ad network which requires third party involvement. Adblockers block those. It's not manageable to post individual ads.


I would expect to see a code snippet on host sites which does a bit of pass-through disguising, so that what used to be "iframe src=skeezy_virus_mill.ru" looks local. That seems consistent with the arms race in progress...


Some sites do this already. Either with a locally hosted snippet or by doing a CNAME in their DNS that points to the third party so it looks like it's from the same domain.


But why can't they arrange some alternate setup where the main site serves the ads (relaying the ads from another server) rather than the ad network? It would be roughly the same effort from the site owner.


Serving on the main site leaves the attribution for views/click throughs in the hands of the site owner, who may or may not tell the truth about the success of the ads.

I'm sure there are lots of ways to work this out though, it's likely that they are more complex or more unreliable than what already exists, or nobody has thought of a better way that meets the needs of 1) advertisers 2) ad networks 3) content providers in a practical way.

If anyone comes up with such a system, it may do well, but then again, you'd have to get that system adopted somehow.


Ads and reliable counting should be possible to provide from the content providers site. Tracking/identification is optional. The question is just: if it's the only choice available, would advertisers want to pay for non-individualized ads being shown to all visitors, without any chance of click-through counts?

My guess is: initially no. But eventually? Why not? All we did then was turn web advertising into what it was from the beginning - print ads on a screen.


Because the main site owner then has to spend time coordinating with literally thousands of advertisers to get their ads for their champagnes. They then have a build an maintain an adverser that is hosted in their domain, right now ad servers you buy are hosted in a separate domain.

This also eliminates the possibility of do programatic buying of ads, think Ad Words. Large companies have the money to spend on this, they don't because they don't have to. What you are suggesting would cut every small company out of the advertising space.


They would just have to agree on a common protocol for the advertiser to pass back what what each bit of ad content looks like. It wouldn't prevent programmatic buying of ads, as you could still forward over the cookies, user data, and other information submitted with request and the advertiser could still condition the ad on this information.

>What you are suggesting would cut every small company out of the advertising space.

I'm confused by your phrasing: I was suggesting a countermeasure, not mandating something that would cut people out of any market. And it would certainly be hard now, because there isn't a common interface for setting up the ad relaying, but that's exactly how thing were in the early web: having an ad provider place ads on your site required a custom[1] solution until there was a common way of doing it.

[1] sorry, "bespoke" is the hip term now...


I think it's because the ad-networks don't want to trust the site owners. Which is understandable since there are colliding interests between advertisers, site owners, users and ad-networks.


Do you also think that selling movies is broken business model because movies can pirated trivially?

Or that free software is broken model because GPL can be violated trivially?


In principle: If you pirate movies or the GPL, the legal system comes after you. So no, not completely broken.

But that's my point: Those industries have taken the path of serving the subsegment of the market that won't break the law/contract. And maybe that's the answer for website advertising, but adblockers are a one-time install and look like less effort than pirating (for movies) or obfuscating (for GPL). So good luck if that's your business model.


In both of your example cases, there are actual legal protections. In the case of a content farm, they're making content available for _free_ without a terms of service in the hope that people visiting them won't be blocking the ads they're also serving. Show me the content farm that makes users agree to a terms of service requiring ad viewing, and then your examples make sense.


How is ad blocking an ethical issue? I get to control my computer, at least until some legislation passes that says I don't.

Even if I don't control my computer entirely, how about my DNS? I have a lot of the more intrusive domains (tynt, doubleclick, etc) set up as 127.0.0.1 in my dnsmasq config.

The "whose computer is it anyway" question seems key here. In order to make advertising possible, we have to take control away from owners. That seems like a generally bad outcome.


You get to control your computer, but there are some things which it's unethical to control your computer to do.

It would be unethical to prevent people from blocking ads, but that doesn't mean it's ethical for people to block ads.

(I'm not saying it's not ethical for people to block ads, just that I don't think your argument works.)


The ethical issue is with regards to people reading all the content supported by advertising, but then blanking out all the ads. Marco's taking the position that, given the risk, and the general intrusiveness and privacy violations associated with advertising, that it's entirely ethical to do so.


Don't you think the bigger ethical issue here is how content providers keep using ad networks that commonly serve as a delivery mechanism for malware?

Reading someone's content without looking at their ads seems like a relatively minor infraction in comparison.


I agree with Marco - I think the pendulum regarding security and privacy has swung too far, and it's entirely ethical to block such code from running on your system.

I think a form of ads that are entirely reasonable (though hard to scale), are the ones that Gruber sticks himself into his DF feed. and, ironically, they are extraordinarily effective - I can probably name, by heart, about 20 of his sponsors. And I've visited, and purchased products from many of them.


The ethical argument, which is briefly considered in this article, is that by blocking ads you are violating an implied agreement with the site owners.

Legality and technology are irrelevant, it's simply a question of whether or not such an implied agreement exists and whether or not it is ethical to break it.

My opinion is that such an agreement does exist, and that it is a (very minor) unethical act to break it, and that it is a much larger unethical act to brag gleefully about breaking it as many are doing in this thread.

The virtuous way to respond to an untenable agreement is to avoid it altogether, not to take the parts that benefit you and violate the parts that don't.


Are there any analagous "implied agreements" that lend weight to your opinion, or are we breaking new ground with this?

And as a counterpoint, I would suggest that the "implied agreement" respects the user to whom ads are being served. Sites like gawker, huffington, techcrunch who attempt to sell my behavior to 6-10 ad networks are stepping over that line.


You're making the wrong argument. You get to control what you are subjected to. If you don't want to be bombarded by psychologically manipulative propaganda, it is just, correct, ethical, and legal(for now) not to be.

If you produce ad burdened content hoping that I will allow myself to be advertised to. I'm glad to crush that hope. You can charge for your content, stop producing it, etc. What you can't do is demand I endure you're fucking advertising.


Thank you. I was indeed making the wrong argument. Your argument is much better, and takes the ethical high ground.


How is ad blocking an ethical issue? I get to control my computer, at least until some legislation passes that says I don't.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

No one said it's a black-and-white ethical issue. It's unquestionably a dilemma. And as a user of ad blocking software, one I myself wrestle with.


"It can't be unethical because it's not illegal" is question-begging.


But we see the "You have to do this (possibly) unethical thing because it's the law" (capital punishment, imprisonment for victimless crimes, etc) all the time. Why not the opposite of "it's ethical because it's the law"?


> How is ad blocking an ethical issue?

Many people rely on ads for a livelihood without charging for content; ad-blocking would deprive of their livelihood. This was a contentious issue for niche video content creators (e.g. the nostalgic review craze that happened a few years ago)

Most of these content creators have switched to Patreon/Kickstarter.


That is not a good argument to make. The corollary is that the telecom companies "own" their infrastructure. They can modify any packets sent from your computer to theirs, insert tracking, or peek at it or whatever. After all, YOU sent the packet to them.


They actually do this. Adding unique identifiers to headers.

The U.S. Government also use the fact that telco owns the lines to justify mass surveillance since you are communicating on lines you don't own.


Not to them, but through them.

I'm paying them to take that data, and deliver it verbatim to some other party.

They are reasonably free to refuse to take my money (they may have traded that freedom for some other gain, but then it's a different story), what they can't do is claim they are providing that service, while adulterating my data.


>Not to them, but through them.

To send it through them, you have to send it TO them. You know what I meant, lets not waste time on this.

> what they can't do is claim they are providing that service, while adulterating my data.

They can do anything they want, unless its against the law. (Or to be more specific, unless its proven in a court to be against the law).

The point is that we are relying on COMMONLY AGREED terms of what a service must provide. There is no explicit legal definition of what a routing service must do. The legal case, is not the same as the technical case.

I was replying to the person whose argument was - my computer, my rules. My point is the telecom can go - My router/infrastructure, my rules.


Do you really believe that the only reason "it's my car and I can run over whoever I like" is ethically wrong is because there's a law that says you can't run over people?


No, but it's my car so I can take off all the manufacturer and dealer badges.


Even if you got the car for free, because the manufacturer wants people to see you driving it? Sounds unethical to me.


That's quite a bit different - there's probably a contractual (legal) obligation there.

I use my bandwidth to retrieve the web page, and my CPU/GPU time to render it. Arguably, my computer is doing some of the work for the "content creator" in any case. If we're going the Car Analogy Route, then I think the situation is more like you've bought some blueprints and chunks of metal. You machined the chunks of metal into parts, and then assembled a car. Does Ford or VW or GM get to demand that you put their badges/plates/etc on it?

This is to point out that physical analogies are slippery at best.


The assembly / bandwidth / cpu / etc argument really shines for limited platforms. E.g. if you're on metered internet, loading ads costs you money. If you're on a small device, playing ads costs you power, meaning you have to find a charger sooner.

Computer ads aren't free for the people subjected to them, since we're the ones that have to do the work of displaying them. Compare that to paper / magazine ads add a few grams of weight and a bit of volume, but rarely in noticeable amounts, and billboard ads that don't cost the recipient any resources by being there (except maybe having to step around them).


> paper / magazine ads add a few grams of weight and a bit of volume, but rarely in noticeable amounts

Have you even seen dead-tree magazines in the lase ~decade? They are often half (or more!) ads. I hardly call >50% of the volume/mass to be "rarely noticeable".

I'm sure there are counterexamples of saner magazines, but they are certainly not the common experience.


How many car manufacturers do you know that give away cars for free - which are build pre-packaged with advertising - without fist getting you to sign a contract that stipulates the terms of that arrangement? Only with that contract can they prevent you from modifying the product they gave you.

That is the entire point of the "first-sale doctrine"[1]. You can only control your product up until the point you hand it over to the first customer, and what they do with it after that point - provided[2] they stay within the law - is up to them.

The big problem with "blocking ads is unethical" is that it presumes that the relationship between the website and client is covered by some sort of contract. It absolutely is not. Far too many people think they can unilaterally generate a contract of adhesion[3] and then proceed as if it was agreed to simply because they wish it was so or they listed some fine print in the ToS/etc.

Bonus: I don't think the people who push this kind of "pseudo-contract by ultimatum" have really thought about the full mutually-assured-destruction consequences of this kind of scam becoming acceptable to society. Imagine this HTTP header, which has the advantage of being presented before the transaction has been completed, which leaves the server free to decline the offer:

    X-CLIENT-ADVIEW-PRICES: each_image=0.05@USD each_video=5.00@USD:max_time=2m30s
    X-CLIENT-ADVIEW-PAYMENTS: some_type_of_payment_routing_number
Would the "content producers" like it if that was enforcable? How about the reverse: mandating zero-cost for a subscription site? If you think this is ridiculous: good - it is ridiculous. Just like when the advertisers do it.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First-sale_doctrine

[2] Other laws like copyright are, of course, still apply.

[3] https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/adhesion_contract_contract_o...


How is downloading cracked software or stolen movies an ethical issue?


Primarily, it's a legal issue.

Although I genuinely wonder what came first - the discussion of ethics of "stealing" books or discussion of ethics of passed copyright laws.


So blocking ads is ethical because it's legal? That doesn't sound right.


As for ads - I suppose if there is an ongoing ethics discussion already (and I believe there is), then it's ethical issue. Not sure, though.

It's comparison that's didn't sound right to me. I'm just not sure it's well-comparable, because I suppose the major ethical debate about copyright infringement came from the existence of copyright laws. Which is not the case for ad-blocking.


OK, so the equivalent would be this:

I buy magazines from the wholesaler. I rip out all the adverts. I then sell them to the public.

I'm acting as a lovely "ad-blocker" for magazines. Is what I'm doing legal or ethical?

Another argument would be is it ethical to block people who have adblock installed. In such an arms race, who will win?


I don't think that analogy holds up, since the viewer of a web page is not reselling the content (which would be the unethical part). It would be more accurate to ask whether removing the ad pages in magazines you keep for your own use was ethical. The obvious answer would be: of course.


It's even ok to hire someone to rip the ads out for you beforehand.


As someone who uses ad-blockers, I am totally fine with sites blocking me for it. I will disable adblock for that site if I really value the content. Otherwise it makes it really easy for me to decide to never go back to a site again.


When a site asks nicely, I always disable my adblocker and reload. I did that today on a page and was met with a full-page video overlay ad, with a tiny X in the corner that opened a new tab to the target site anyway when I clicked it. After closing the ad and the new tab, I had to scroll down a page more of ads to find the start of the article and after a few seconds reading another overlay popped up, asking me to connect with facebook or at least enter my e-mail address.

It took them all of 10 seconds or so to convince me to turn uBlock back on and refresh again. If you want me to keep it off, you need to at least let me read the article!


> I buy magazines from the wholesaler. I rip out all the adverts. I then sell them to the public.

Why wouldn't this be legal or ethical? What you choose to do with the mass of paper you just purchased is totally fine.


At the very least the magazine producer may get angry, and make it hard for you to buy the magazines.


And there's nothing wrong with either of those things happening, either.


I think magazines is the wrong analogy here, as you paid for them.

A better example would be doing the same to free newspapers.


people aren’t agreeing to write a blank check and give up reasonable expectations of privacy by clicking a link. They can’t even know what the cost of visiting a page will be until they’ve already visited it and paid the price.

This is the crucial point to me. How can I agree to a website's trackers before I know they exist?


This is also what the much-maligned EU cookiewall was intended to address: you inform visitors about your tracking /before/ you start tracking them.

Though I don't know at which stage that incentive was bungled (other than: "doomed from the start, because people").


Correct me if I'm wrong (because I don't live in the EU and can't verify this), but to comply with the cookie law websites started just displaying "we use cookies" in the header somewhere and didn't actually change anything. Meaning its the same as browsing the internet everywhere else you just get told that this is happening.


No correction, that is what happened. But I don't know if that's because the law was naively constructed, naively interpreted or willfully misinterpreted because it's easier to implement.


I never used an ad blocker until the last month or so. Ive made money with content and ads before and I know it's hard to do. Sadly, things have gotten absurd lately. Chrome basically slowed my computer to a halt on an almost daily basis. The performance improvement from using an ad blocker has been tremendous. So much difference I have a hard time believing it.

As a side bonus I also don't have to deal with auto playing video ads and popover boxes asking me to subscribe to content I haven't yet had a chance to see if I like.


I just installed windows 10, and obviously had to quickly fire up "Edge" to get chrome/firefox etc.

My mind was blown when I googled a "how to" and went to a PC help page that started auto playing a video in the sidebar completely unrelated to the topic I was interested in - simultaneously kind of clashing with the music I was already listening to.

Seriously? People have been putting up with this? Some 10 minutes later I was all adblock'd/noscript'd and my internet experience had returned to normal. I literally haven't experienced that since the days of sodding myspace.


In my book, it's no longer a question of ethics, at least not directly. Way back when, we all agreed that if I look at some ads, a web site will let me view some content. Fair enough, it's a proven model and though I might not particularly like advertising, I'll trade some eyeballs for some content. Way back when, maybe it _was_ a question of ethics. But not anymore.

What "we" didn't agree to was being tracked all over the web, malware being shoved down the pipe via ads, ignoring "do not track", and all of the other nefarious things ad networks have been trying to get away with. Ethics have gone out the window, if ethics ever existed on the side of advertisers. So I run an ad blocker, and I make no apologies for doing so.

"What about the little guy who pays for hosting with ads?" You mean the "little guy" who has to scrape couch change to pay for the site that contains his latest post about artisanal mayonnaise and her latest gadget acquisition? Yeah, that $100/year for hosting is really going to break her, might not be able to get next year's Apple Watch on release day.

The big boys and girls like The Verge and what have you? Well, using The Verge as an example, they could go under tomorrow and IMO the world would be no poorer, given that they've kind of turned to poo in recent days. I blame the web advertising model for part of their deterioration, but that's a long digression. Specific examples aside, what about the sites I like? I pay money to the sites I like, specifically Ars Technica, NYT, and the Economist (and some others I'm sure I've forgotten about). Some, like Daring Fireball, use unobtrusive, single-image ads that I'll occasionally click on because they interest me, as well as a desire to reward a job well done.

But at the end of the day, the whole thing isn't my problem. If a few bad actors (or, in reality, a lot of bad actors) want to crawl into my machine and have their way, I'm blocking all of them. If there's collatoral damage because of some bad actors, it's not my job to fix it. I did my part and said, "no, you don't". Don't lay the onus on me to play nice, because you're berating the wrong party.


http://www.artofmanliness.com/

This site is a great one to look at in terms of the ad ecosystem. The ads are (typically) not that bad and very targeted, and the content is fantastic to the sub-genre of people looking at it. The admin there uses, reviews, and runs give-aways for products he actually likes and wants to advocate for. True, the site is never going to make billions or even millioons, but it is enough for his needs.

The issue is that it takes a lot of work to build that with your community and ad partners. You have to make a lot of phone calls and write a lot of emails. You have to have consistently good and timely articles. Your content and audience have to be managed. Big ad firms do not have the margins to do this and are forced into blast ads.

Many other commenters here mention that the ad ecosystem is up for a change, much like pop-ups a decade ago. Perhaps a more curated environment is going to appear for a little while.


So, just for example, loading artofmanliness.com allows 14 different third-party companies to track your browsing history. There's more to fixing this than just putting in work to manage ad inventory -- we need a system that doesn't depend on broadcasting private information to dozens of anonymous companies.


People subscribe to podcasts. Why couldn't people subscribe to his site (for a trivially small payment) and get access to one new article per week? (Or access to 50 articles for a set period of time.)

If the content is good, then people will be willing to pay for it. That's how books work. That's how, for example, wikipedia works. That's how newspapers work (although of course many have been failing).


I'm not saying the site is perfect, rather, a more appropriate use of ads and how they are displayed. This is to counter the auto-playing pop-ups you can never seem to exit from and only mis-click on.


"What, then, is ethics? Ethics is two things. First, ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues." -- https://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/whatisethics....

Kant 1st Imperative -- Violates -- If everyone used Adblock, many websites would shutdown. I.e. "Adblock is okay because sites can still run if just some people do it" -- cannot be universally applied, contradiction

Kant 2st Imperative -- Violates -- You treat website developers as a means to an end -- to get content, instead of rational human beings who, given a sufficient outcry against their ads, could change their ad service or offer a different model.

Utilitarianism -- Violates -- Ad Revenue - Well being of site owner: -Site Costs / Visitors + Ad Revenue For just you. Well being of you: Site benefit - time wasted * time value. (Blocking "Ad will play for x seconds" in this specific ethical system might not violate)

Rule Utilitarianism -- Violates -- Well being of site owners: Cannot make ad supported sites, current ad supported sites -site cost. Well being of society: Less websites -- more inefficiency and less units of entertainment good.

Social Contract -- Violates -- People accept ads knowing that others will do this as well and this supports the site. Another: Site owners create sites relying on users's ability to see them and thus pay for site creation.

Virtue Ethics -- Violates -- You might feel more shame being in a room with someone who made a site supported by ads and showing them that you use adblock then if you were invisible to the site owner.

The systems above are the ethical systems allowed in the book "Ethics for the Information Age (6th Edition)" by Michael J. Quinn (the list is his, but not the theories themselves, just mentioning my source to show I'm not cherry-picking ethical systems)


But all those reflexions on the issue are completely determined by the random assumptions you use in your examples.

Kant 1. Imp: One could deny the disappearance or embrace it. One could see the new forces leading the web away from ads as something beneficial for society as a whole.

Utilitarianism: There are many not quantifyable variables in a possible calculation. Just add seeing ads as exceedingly costly and your utilitarian argument in favour of adblocking is secured. Same goes for rule utilitarianism. E.g. Just measure the overall good generated by websites not by quantity but by quality. Get advertising in your quality metrics as something that reduces quality.

Social Contract: Spin another social contract: Page owners freely upload their pages knowing that the web is pull and users will select the resources displayed. One could argue that forcing them to download ads might violate this social contract.

Virtue Ethics: Alter the individuals opinion on his adblocking behaviour for your model. One could argue that there might be shame for someone not to block ads. (Which is a plausible case for a whole variety of ads out in the web right now.)


Ethics is always a subjective science, but these ethical models provide a fair and structured approach to looking at it.

Kant 1. Doesn't ask "what's best for society"? It asks about the "universalizability principle" i.e. "if everyone acts like me is there a contradiction?". And in this case there is, if you browse an ad-supported site that could only exist if some people view the ads is a contradiction. You have to agree that some sites would shut down if everyone used adblock, and thus the principal stands. It's not about what's best for society if the sites shut down, just pointing out the ethical contradiction that if everyone acted like you, everyone couldn't act like you (at least not always on all sites).

Utilitarianism. You just have to measure the obvious units of good vs units of bad. Again, it's not like a math proof but you can identify the units of good vs units of bad. Can you provide an alternate counter proof that is more obviously correct than my analysis?

Social Contract: I'm talking about the implicit social contract that exist today. Page owners don't freely upload their page knowing that the web is pull and users will select the resources displayed. Many page owners aren't even aware of adblock, at least not all of them.

Basically what you've said is: Movie theater owners free open their doors knowing that the world is navigable and users will select whether they want to visit the pay booth or not. Movie theater owners do open their theaters with this in mind, but they don't intend for their users to skip the pay booth if they simply don't want to pay. That's not the social contract you take on when you visit a theater.

In this case, the social contract is stated in actually stated in words you can read. Just read the terms of service on many websites. They specifically say you can view the site if you don't block the ads: "you are not permitted to block the display of ads" -- http://www.livejournal.com/legal/tos.bml

Virtue Ethics: I think this one is pretty verifyable :) Just find someone that owns a ad supported site and tell them to their face that you use ad block and you think it would be shameful not to. See how you feel ;)


I don't get this "fair and structured approach" in those models. You'd normally start off with a normative claim and then provide a justification in every sheme available.

The normative claim is the core hypothesis and your protective belt are all assumptions needed to make it indisprovable.

The value of those concepts seems purely rhetoric to me.


The first step is to just stop feeling guilty about doing what you want with your own property, and then you don't need to bother with these huge rationalizations either way.

Would you support a law that made it illegal to run ad-blocking software? Why or why not?


I'm saying you should try and it see if you feel guilty. You might or might not. What I feel is not relevant since I'm the one trying to make the point.

They aren't rationalizations, they are accepted standards for analyzing decisions based on ethical systems.

Also (what you are doing on your own property) only counts when it doesn't involve another person (the site owner).

"Rationalization a defense mechanism in which controversial behaviors or feelings are justified and explained in a seemingly rational or logical manner to avoid the true explanation" -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationalization_(psychology)

I'm not trying to avoid the true explanation, I'm trying to find the true explanation :) I'm not trying justify the act after the fact (for myself or others). Also not using Adblock software is not controversial.

"But laws, like feelings, can deviate from what is ethical" --https://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/whatisethics....

I don't believe in making a law because I don't believe in encoding every single ethical decision into laws. Just because I believe based on my analysis that it's wrong to use Adblock software doesn't mean that I believe people who use Adblock software should be fined or put in jail, etc. just that they are making a decision that is unethical. Laws deal with the practicalities of society and what has to be done to keep order, it should not be used as a tool for prescribing a 0-leeway master code of ethics upon each person.


If everyone used Adblock, many websites would shutdown. - Fails to make the claim that many (but not all) websites shutting down would be bad.

Kant's 2nd Imperative - Passes. It treats them as ends in and of themselves by focusing on the content they wish to present to me rather than lies which they don't control.

Utilitarianism - Impossible to come to agreement on. We could heap on whatever costs/benefits we want on either side to make it come out in our favor. Example, you don't take into account "Cost of tracking/malware vector" for site owner (site reputation, if there's a 0.1% chance of them serving malware which causes all their traffic to disappear), and viewers (Cost of malware).

Rule Utilitarianism - Same issue as above, you can tweak the numbers/rule to make the outcome whatever you want. Serving ads violates "Don't serve malware", "Don't promulgate lies/misleading statements"

Social Contract - Malware risk, tracking risk. I directly fund sites which I use when possible.

Virtue Ethics - Being supported by ads is un-virtuous.


(Fails to make the claim that many (but not all) websites shutting ) -- Not the intended claim. Kants 1 deals with "universalizability principle" (See other comment)

Kant's 2nd Imperative -- Incorrect perspective. Analyzing whether adding ads to your site isn't the question we are analyzing here (that might also be unethical). Blocking ads is what we are looking at.

Utilitarianism -- Incorrect perspective. Analyzing whether adding ads to your site isn't the question we are analyzing here (that might also be unethical). Blocking ads is what we are looking at.

Rule -- Incorrect perspective. Analyzing whether adding ads to your site isn't the question we are analyzing here (that might also be unethical). Blocking ads is what we are looking at.

Social Contract -- -- Incorrect perspective. Analyzing whether adding ads to your site isn't the question we are analyzing here (that might also be unethical). Blocking ads is what we are looking at.

Virtue Ethics -- -- Incorrect perspective. Analyzing whether adding ads to your site isn't the question we are analyzing here (that might also be unethical). Blocking ads is what we are looking at.


Fine, fine.

Kant's 1st Imperative -- Back to universalizability: If everybody used Adblock, then many sites would shut down. That's universalizable. In fact, I'm encouraging the universalizing of this one, rather than what you're assuming, which is that I'm hiding within "It's alright if I do it, so long as the bulk of traffic doesn't".

Kant's 2nd Imperative -- Blocking ads is the outcry, then. They have the basis of free rational action to provide an ad, I have the basis of free rational action to decide whether to view it.

Utilitarianism -- Blocking ads downside: Less economic churn (might be positive). Blocking ads upside: Reduces malware vectors, thus decreasing the chance of malware targeting nuclear facilities spreading and leading to nuclear annihilation of the planet. Given the infinite magnitude of harm, even the most improbable odds outweigh. ((Seriously, trying to actually calculate utilitarian probability is a fool's errand.))

Rule Utilitarianism - I reject that your proposed rules lead to the greatest good. Alternate rule: Permitting malware vectors to run is harmful, thus blocking malware vectors is positively ethical.

Social Contract -- Websites provide open streams of information without negotiating terms. This might apply to "Wait X seconds before seeing your content" type ads, I'll concede that.

Virtue Ethics -- You might feel shame for supporting ad-based revenue systems. (Seriously. No shame here. I'll tell you to your face that I block ads. If you proceed to block me, that's entirely fair. At which point I can decide whether I think it's worth viewing ads for one time to see the content.)


Thanks, this is much better/on topic. There's not much I can add in rebuttal without just re-iterating previous points.

One thing I was thinking about based on your points now and previous, is that wouldn't you want to block whole site that are ad-supported and not just the ads? You could have an ad-site-block that blacklists all sites that are ad-supported and removes links on pages to them.

This whole debate is like "I don't thinking paying movie theater tickers is a good business model, so I just bypass the pay stand. Let that business model die." It seems kinda immoral to me to gladly accept the services of a website and also hope for and contribute to its death.

I like to think programmers when they see grocery self-checkout lines just walk past them.

* They have malware that steals credit card numbers (See target)!

* There's nothing stopping them! They can chose where to walk and where to not walk.

* Grocery stores are an outdated business model and it should die. Use Amazon fresh! etc.

* They feel no shame. (Seriously. No shame here. I'll tell you to your face that I walk past self-checkout machines. If you proceed to block me from the store, that's entirely fair. At which point I can decide whether I think it's worth using the self-checkout to pay for one grocery item)


Before the web, people changed channels or got up during TV commercials,

Many people still don't realize it's trivial to have a DVR automatically skip commercials, but advertising companies and TV networks sued TiVo to make sure they will never implement it.

Modern web ads and trackers are far over the line for many people today,

Not just "over the line," but for over 5 years now, advertising networks have allowed exploits to be delivered over their advertising networks. There's nothing like browsing a website then having a drive-by crypto locker installed on your machine.

As of 2015, blocking advertising isn't a moral question, it's a question of do you value your own security.

But publishers, advertisers, and browser vendors are all partly responsible for the situation we’re all in.

People say "trust the wisdom of the free market," but they forget the important part: free markets always become corrupt and always accumulate power towards the top. A market without government oversight and intervention is just a way to exploit and abuse people for profit with no repercussions.

It has never been easier to collect small direct payments online,

That's more tricky, isn't it? We've all viewed some article at a tiny city's online newspaper then been hit with a "SUBSCRIBE TO PODUNK DAILY ONLINE TO KEEP READING, ONLY $24.99/month." It's not sustainable for every small thing to receive direct payments and we don't have a clean disaggregation of a common "subscribe to internet publicans" pool (like iTunes Match, but for writing? Still useless if you get 0.00002 cents per page view—but, that's basically online advertising again).


flattr.com


Is a centralised service. I want to pay "cash", I want my privacy. It is no one's business which things I give money to.


bitcoin! :)


Hahaha, and let everyone in the big wide world see all my transactions? Good joke!


We went from the "static" newspaper/TV ads, that didn't know about what you did with them, to "dynamic" web/mobile apps, that know exactly if you watched them, clicked on them AND eventually bought something coming from that ad. Also, which ad from the same ad-network you watched before, what apps/websites you used before etc.

Advertisement got much more power on the Internet and got much more predictable for advertisers.

But we also switched from turning pages or switching channels, if we don't like the ads, to blocking whole advertising companies with the help of software. We can now even prevent the ad from being "overseen" at all, because it doesn't even get shown to us in the first place. newspaper adds always hit your subconsciousness.

Both sides stepped up their game. Don't see any problem with this.


Tangentially related but: I think the ethical way forward for ad-blocking extentions/software would be for it to self-identify [1]. That way if a website owner wants to block you or be more upfront about asking for donations, they don't have to resort to JS hacks to determine if you are using an adblocker. If they don't want me to see their site ad-free [2] I can either move on or decide that the content is worth a few ads.

[1] I only know the basics about the http protocol but I'm guessing something in the header could be added. [2] Which is completely within their rights as virtual "land owners".


Not sure how ethics play into this. If your service is of such low quality that nobody is willing to pay for it, and you resort to ads to support your business.. well, tough. Make something that sells, or try a different way of making a living.

People are blocking ads because nobody likes a firehose of garbage pointed right at their face.

To crank that tired old record, "this sector is ripe for disruption" aka somebody go already make an ad network stand-in where the user can pay the equivalent of per-impression cost and visit any participating site ad-free.


I see ad revenue as someone who has an audience opening up access to that audience for a third party in exchange for a fee. It is entirely up to the third party to figure out how to get a return on that investment.

Neither the content creator nor the audience bears any responsibility to the third party to ensure that the opened channel is used effectively.

If shit comes through the channel, I'm going to route it right into the sewer. If gold comes through, I'll route it into my pocket. Either way, I still care more about my relationship with the content creators than about their sponsored side-channels.

The ads do not pay for the content. The content creators pay for their own content. Then they hold their nose and make a deal with shady web-advertisers to capitalize a bit more on what they have already done. Those advertisers aren't buying content. They are buying access to the audience.


The bigger issue, IMHO, is quality of advertising rather than its presence. People pay $15 for a theater ticket and sit through 10 minutes of ads, buy Vogue magazine and have 30%+ of pages be ads, buy The New York Times and be hit with ads all over the place, watch the Superbowl specifically to see the ads, and more. What people seem to really want are better ads or even ads that are entertainment or content in their own right (which is why native advertising has taken off).


Or a revamped pricing scheme for the website they might favor for their content. Seeing how the internet and computers allows for many more content to be published at a fraction of the cost of yesterday's system, there is a gap to be filled between the old pricing scheme of hard copies newspaper and all "free" content of the web.

$15 per month per website (like the NYT) seems a bit excessive when 10 or 20 other websites might offer the same news and at least a dozen direct competitors have similar offers. My father and his father might have had a subscription to a couple of newspaper/magazine, but I have the news at my finger tips.


Maybe if ads weren't such a malware cesspool people would have less reason to block them.

The people providing ads do a dirt-poor job curating them, so blocking ads isn't about convenience but about security.


I whitelist ads on websites now, and I wish I could do the same on my phone. I think someone here or on reddit mentioned, and I had the same experience, trying out IE Edge and it being a decent browser, but as soon as the autoplaying video ads start, I downloaded FF, added uBlock and didn't look back. I use the same browser setup on my phone, and now and then I use some apps that emulate a browser (like Reddit is Fun or HN app), and the experience is wholly broken. I was reading an article and it was miserable - the fixed header for the site plus fixed footer for the ads took up about 1/3rd of the real estate, not to mention they were jittery and I couldn't focus because I'd scroll too far, then the ads would load where I was reading.

There's no ethics involved with me. Poor experience? Get blocked. Decent experience? Welcome to the whitelist


Why whitelist ads at all? Ads are evil, the ad agencies track you, you run the risk of viruses / malware (like the recent 0-day exploit on a russian news site through ads), and there's zero gain for the person visiting the site.


I understand the idea of whitelisting sites that you want to support, but even that is tricky when their ads are provided by a myriad of ad companies, clearinghouses and ad auction sites. So even if the original website is good and trustworthy, the ad networks that you let through could still ruin you.


whitelist officesnapshots.com because we self-host and sell our own ads circumventing ad networks :)


Why is this becoming an issue now? I've been blocking adverts on-and-off for 10 years or so. Back then it was manually editing a HOSTS file - is it just in the news now because it's becoming slightly easier on iPhone?


It becomes mainstream. We are at a point where we get less content, because revenue for content-creators is impacted by blocking.


I used to use ad-block and later disabled it to support websites that generate good content, but now I'm going back. What's driven me back to ad-blocking software is that ad tracking makes it nearly impossible to buy gifts for a spouse. If I want to buy my wife a pair of sunglasses and google "Ray Ban sunglasses", guess what she starts seeing ads for all over the web. We noticed this a while back and would do gift shopping in incognito mode, but I've gotten fed up enough with it that I'm just going to start blocking everything again.


Do you have separate (client- and server-side) user accounts or browser profiles?


We use completely different accounts on completely different computers.


How come everyone is using the closed-source, ad-network friendly Ghostery instead of the open-source https://disconnect.me/ ?


Because actually stopping tracking requires premium (paid) version? Or because mobile version is not a browser plugin, but virtual vpn, so it doesn't work with your real vpn?


The Disconnect website says that the free version "[blocks] malware & tracking (Desktop only)".


Yes, and also says: Upgrade to premium protection - Block malware & tracking (Desktop and mobile).

Ghostery works fine on both, desktop and mobile. It even syncs as an addon across both instances.


Huh, I had no idea. What a shame!


Why is Ghostery ad-network friendly?


They sell the metrics they collect back to the advertising networks. They're public about this, it's not a secret.


It is opt-in, but I do agree, pretty slimy.


The current model can't work. The internet is becoming unusable due to ads. I am not sure how it will evolve, in terms of paying for content, but this is surely not the answer. I expect that we will be paying for content in some form. Perhaps a Spotify-type model where you pay a monthly fee and the fee is distributed to content providers.

On the issue of ethics, I'd say it's not ethical to spread out a small amount of content across six pages just to get more page views. It's bad for advertisers and for consumers.


I think one of the big problems is that most end-users don't know everything that goes into displaying an ad (myself included).

Yes, we can say, "I consent to viewing an ad in order to receive X free service" in the same way that we consent to viewing a commercial when we watch TV or listening to an ad on the radio.

However, in those latter two examples, the information is one-way. Those advertisers don't collect any personal information (outside of perhaps our viewing/listening location).

When it comes to website ads, most consumers do not know/realize that a) the advertisers are collecting a WEALTH of your personal information and b) that information comes at a cost of your bandwidth (which, for many mobile users, is limited). There are probably many other things that happen between the end-user and the third-party that I am not aware of.

Sure, they may consent to viewing a free ad, but most of them do NOT consent to collection of information nor increased usage of bandwidth.

I am happy that many websites are now (at least trying to) put a visible cookie privacy policy, but I think even those little policies are getting banner blindness.


The formal name for the browser is "User Agent".

Your agent should act in you, the user's, interest. Decidedly partisan and so what? You shouldn't have to explicitly instruct it to defend you from surveillance and pollution - it should do that of its own accord from day zero.

Or is your browser a double-agent?


Think about who makes the browser, and what their interests are. Mozilla and Google both are 100% creatures of the advertising world (in the former case, indirectly through their search box deals) and have a vested interest in selling you on.

I'm not saying switch to Safari or Edge, but it's important to remember the incentives that the browser vendors respond to.


Nowdays content is there for the sake of the ad. Nowdays the content in many cases is an ad. Block that...


I really truly don't understand why people this this is an ethical issue at all.

I personally own 12 personal domains, all for various content that I personally put up. Some blogs, some game servers, etc, etc. I don't charge for my content, and I don't advertise. I'm not in it to make money, I'm in it to share things with people, and I do it all out of my own wallet.

Why is there this assumption that all content needs to be subsidized by the readers? I mean, I get it... there's certainly value in compensating content producers for their time, and even allowing them to do it full time... but there is SO much content out there that is basically put up out of the goodness of the creators' hearts. Why can't we keep it that way?


"Ads help us to be more informed about what products are available to us" (paraphrasing)

A kind public service! We should really be paying them, but the advertisers inform us for free!

Asking about the ethics of hiding ads seems a little like asking about the ethics of taking shelter during a carpet bombing attack.

I wish we would steer these discussions away from economics (Do the ads work? Are there better ways to monetize, do they stabilize or destabilize markets, etc) and toward culture. What is the cultural effect of saturating the internet (and the rest of the world for that matter) with ads? I am not the first person to ask...


I'm glad someone wrote this article. I used to work at an ad network and for that reason, I've ethically chosen not to use an ad blocker. But I do agree that consolidation of tracking, over-abundance of ad spots and nasty performance have reached new lows that I've considered using one.

I think it would be nice if publishers just went back to <img> tags. Script tags and iframes and flash give to much power and result in lots of performance issues.

You can still track and consolidate with an img tag but the tracking is limited to what's in the http headers.


I have a question for everyone advocating the use of ad blockers: Do you just do a blanket block for all ads, ban the big networks with the trackers along with the malware serving ones or something else?

I understand wanting to block the ones with the trackers for privacy reasons and the malware ones because nobody wants malware, but blanket blocking all ads tars everyone with the same brush.

Edit: Personally, I used to just blanket ban but I've recently moved towards having uBlock only block the malware ones and will manually block any spammy sites.


> Do you just do a blanket block for all ads, ban the big networks with the trackers along with the malware serving ones or something else?

Just because there might be a little fresh water in the cesspool doesn't mean I'm drinking from that tap. I block all of them. I'm not the one that pooped in the drinking water, so I'm not going to spend time sorting out the good from the bad.


A good writeup, though I don't agree with the statement about web devs and browser makers -- we read the web too, perhaps more than anyone! :)

It's possible to want to make the platform more powerful and not like some of the ways the power is being used.


The article is a promotion for the author's ad service: "For publishers who want to remain ad-supported, ethically and tastefully presented native advertising, such as sponsored posts in feeds and our community’s podcast ads, has proven to be more effective, more profitable, and less user-hostile by far compared to awful network <script> embeds."

"Sponsored posts" are in some ways worse than pop-ups. We can block pop-ups. Also note that "sponsored posts" that look like regular posts violate the FTC's rule that ads must be distinguished from non-ad content. [1]

[1] https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/attachments/press-re...


To my knowledge Marco doesn't run an ad service.

> Also note that "sponsored posts" that look like regular posts violate the FTC's rule that ads must be distinguished from non-ad content.

I assume that's why he wrote "ethically and tastefully presented native advertising".


I wonder, what opponents of ad-blocking think about email spam? Is it different if spam ads are injected by email client? (some email and even messaging apps do this -- not to the actual mailbox, of course, but to the displayed inbox contents)


Why do ads need to track you anyway? Doesn't it make more sense to customize ads based on the specific page you're looking at? It seems like this is rarely done. At least it doesn't seem that way most of the time.


It would be great if the ad business model on the web died. Hopefully the new business models that would popup would be more upfront. People used to pay 25 cents to read a newspaper or a few bucks for a magazine.


>People used to pay 25 cents to read a newspaper

When you didn't have a world wide internet there was a lot of friction meaning you end up with 5000 newspapers all publishing the same junk for 25 cents because on average any community only had 1 or 2 choices at most and the local oligopoly, not wanting to go out of business, agreed to charge 25 cents.

You put all 5000 on the internet, you really need 4998 of them to go out of business before you can think of going oligopoly and raising prices to 25 cents again. That has to happen first. Most of the competition has to die off before prices can rise again.

In the paper newspaper days, culture supported about as many journalists as police detectives, roughly, which is a lot. In the internet era you need about as many journalists as there are pro football players, roughly. A lot of journalism schools need to close, lots of people need new jobs, its not merely closing out legacy newspaper corporations. Until the "supply" of journalist humans drops by a factor of 100 to 1000, there isn't going to be much money to be made in that field.

It is like being in the horse buggy business around a century ago. Another interesting analogy might be village blacksmith vs the industrial nationwide factory. When one guy at one machine can manufacture an entire nations widgets, there isn't any requirement anymore for every village blacksmith to hand make widgets.


I don't buy it because people are more addicted to content than ever. There is a huge demand for high quality content it's just a matter of figuring the business model to meet that demand. But once it's figured out there will be more journalists than ever. I can't imagine an info-starved internet future.


Unfortunately we have a prisoner's dilemma where people will defect from "costs a little money" to "free with ads" to "free and I block the ads" to "no content."


We'll never get to "no content" because people want quality content and are willing to pay. It's just a matter of the market figuring out how to match supply and demand. There will be a lot of failures along the way but it will happen.


There are lots of things where "someone wants to provide X" and "someone wants to consume X" and even if they could agree on cost, they can't, because market failure.

"The market will figure it out" isn't something handed down from God. I've observed industry segments get drained because someone tried to give away the product, driving all other players out of the market, and then the one remaining player was unable to support themselves because their customers had been trained to get it for free.


newspapers and magazines have always had advertisements


In my opinion, DRM will "fix" that in the future: browser plugins could not be able to identify those ads. So we could reach "Black Mirror"-like ads sooner o later. Brave new world...


The sale of eight-track players for cars is a violation of my government given right to an eternal revenue stream as an owner of a radio station and I demand "someone" do something about those evil (evil because they cut into my constitutionally protected right to profit) evil eight-track players cutting into my ad revenue. Won't someone Please think of the children, and the top 40 music boy bands, oh and most importantly my profits? I don't care if technology has passed me by, I have a good given right to profit as my manifest destiny and I demand those meddling kids stop interfering with it. Or else I'll... well, or else, yeah that's it.


Any ethical framework in which it is unethical to take minimal steps to protect myself from psychological manipulation is an ethical framework that I have no interest in adhering to.


Forget about advertisers and site runners and economics and the rest of it. I run ad blocking software because ads are too good a delivery mechanism for malware.


The average cost for displaying and ad is 0.005$. I am assuming that 30% of that goes to publisher. Would you pay 0.005*0.3 = 0.0015$ per page view? I would.


Not without a restitution possibility. I will not pay anything for domain parking or site rehashing (sedo, quorra, expertsexchange), but I would pay for e.g. stackexchange or eurekalert.


But still, concept of paying the same (or even higher) rate for page view is not that crazy.


Ethics? You mean business. There is no ethical dilemma here, just a business model that might be not working as well as you'd like.


Aren't we just going to start making websites that don't serve the content until they've served the ads?


Well no, because then the page would load way too slowly and users would click away and avoid the site in the future.

But suppose publishers did go this route. Adblocking software would just evolve to match it. They would fetch the ads from the server, possibly via a proxy, run their scripts, feeding bogus statistics to the trackers, and then not display the ads.

Users have the right to control their computers however they want. Trying to limit how the user can use their computer to have better control over your content is DRM. And, in fact, the only effective way of preventing adblockers would be to use traditional DRM software, since we have laws saying that users can't circumvent them.


> Well no, because then the page would load way too slowly and users would click away and avoid the site in the future.

People (fairly) happily sit through 15 minutes of advertising an hour, if that's the only way to get the content they want.

Maybe adblocking software will keep up. It lags behind at the moment, so I'm a bit doubtful it will keep up in a future of increasingly sneaky ad delivery.


Some do this already, you get a full page ad with a 5 second timer. Usually there is a "continue to site" in the upper right hand corner as well.


People who support ad-blockers and support net neutrality don't seem to see the hypocrisy in their stance. If all net traffic should be treated equal then shouldn't advertising net traffic be treated with the same equality as content net traffic and not blocked by some software running somewhere on that network (even if it is running at your end of the network).


I don't buy the hypocrisy. Net neutrality requires ISP infrastructure companies to not artificially restrict end-users choice for legal content. Especially as ISP companies become coupled with content companies (Comcast/NBC Universal) and generate anti-trust concerns regarding throttling their competitors in the content vertical.

An end-user running an ad-blocker has literally nothing to do with the appropriate role of the infrastructure provider (which many argue should be an unbiased plumbing system).

I do think there are some ethical concerns for running an ad-blocker, but I don't think this is one of them.


Net neutrality is about all net traffic being treated equally. It is not just about the ISPs throttling what they want. Ad blockers do not treat all network traffic equally, they will block it if they think it is anything to do with an advertising company.


Net neutrality is about third parties treating all net traffic equally.

I am not treating all net traffic equally, I'm not visiting at least 99.99% of global websites - and that is perfectly consistent with net neutrality.

In that sense, an ad blocking or extra-ad-adding service that is implemented against my wishes by any third party (no matter if it's ISP, software vendor or someone who hacked my computer) violates that neutrality, but the exact same ad blocking or ad adding done by me or the content provider is acceptable.


Every source I've read disagrees with your interpretation. Net neutrality is about common carrier rules and definitely relates to how ISPs and Governments handle traffic.

Here's an article by Tim Wu, who coined the term explaining that he is specifically talking about public network neutrality and common carrier laws: http://www.timwu.org/network_neutrality.html

Also, https://www.eff.org/issues/net-neutrality


It's hard to reply without sarcasm, but I'll try.

I 100% support the right of advertisers' content to be handled with the same diligence and priority as any other source on the Internet, without blocking or throttling at the ISP layer.

I 100% support my right to choose, filter, and select what legally-entitled content I download from the Internet, using whatever mechanism I see fit. If a page redirects me to a freely distributable copy of "Pixels", I'm not going to use my network resources to fetch it just because I can. That content doesn't interest me and I don't want it. Well, same with invasive advertising: I wish not to use my paid network resources to download it.

Your statement is the equivalent of "how can you support telephone companies acting as common carriers, but still think it's OK to hang up on telemarketers?" It's a non-sequitur.


I'm not saying they can't serve it up. I'm saying I don't want to see it. I don't have control over the pipes as a last-mile provider, and if I did, I would let ad traffic through without being throttled. By that logic, running a firewall that blocks incoming ssh login requests from Asia should be a cognitive dissonance for us. I promise you it isn't.


Is it ethical to block articles about ethics of ad-blocking?


like OP, online ads (partially) put food on my table. but that's where the similarities stop: whereas OP mentions he's "never been tempted to run ad-blocking software before," i've blocked ads for years. and i don't just block ads myself, i advise my friends and family to block them, too.

what most of my friends and family don't know is web ads represent, arguably, one of the most dangerous aspects of modern web UX. ad servers exploited with 0-day vulns are one thing, but what worry me (and what i despise) most are dodgy ads that try to mimic/replicate some aspect of the publisher's web UI, and ads that fraudulently misrepresent other websites (e.g. fake facebook notification ads). many of these ads run on the biggest networks.

so instead of repeatedly telling my grandma that the buttons on certain sites aren't actually buttons for those sites, or that the banner with the facebook friend request isn't actually from facebook, i just install adblock on her browser.

i'm well aware of the irony and the double-standard. but safety first, right?


if i've written something that's factually wrong or misleading, offensive, or otherwise violates the comment guidelines, i would appreciate the opportunity to update my comment or delete it. and for that to happen i would need some feedback.




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