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Ad Blocking Technology: It’s Not User Choice, It’s Stealing

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Here’s the scenario. You’re a business owner, and you just learned that a German company invented a technology that lets customers get your product for free. Even worse, you still have to pay for delivery. Then you get a call from the Germans who offer to make your customers pay, but only if you pay them 30 percent of the regained revenue. What do you do? Call the police? The Feds? Well, if you’re Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, you pay the 30 percent.

This is the situation with Adblock Plus, an ad blocker owned by German developer Eyeo. In short, ad blockers are browser add-ons that work in two ways. First, they monitor the outbound calls made by your browser and block any calls to known advertising networks. In the case of video, since the advertising network never receives the call, the ad doesn’t show up, and the player goes on to the next chunk of content. Second, ad blockers hide elements on the page with certain classes, like ads, so the page simply displays without them.

Ad blockers were born around 2002 as a response to intrusive advertising and to sites that used malware or spyware. The installed base of ad blockers varies greatly by geography, age group, and operating system, but by June 2014, Irish company PageFair estimated that there were over 144 million active users.

How effective are ad blockers? I installed Adblock Plus on Firefox and competitor Adblock on Chrome and tested 10 popular U.S. sites, including YouTube, CNN, ESPN, CBS, and CNET, using Safari without an ad blocker for comparison. Safari played a preroll ad on all 10 sites. On Firefox, Adblock Plus removed those ads on 9 of 10 sites, with CBS displaying a banner that said the video wouldn’t play because the ads were blocked. With Chrome, 9 of 10 videos (including CBS) did play without a preroll ad. ESPN didn’t play the video, though no message was displayed. Clearly, at 90 percent effectiveness, ad blockers represent an existential threat to any advertising-supported site.

What’s being done? Well, you can pay Adblock Plus 30 percent of reclaimed revenue to get on their Acceptable Ads list of sites that aren’t automatically blocked when the user installs the product, though users can later choose to block your site. Other sites have taken the CBS route and blocked content when ad blockers are detected, while others appeal to their users to manually unblock their sites.

From a technology perspective, there are two general approaches. First, you can try to spoof the ad blocker by obfuscating the call to the ad server. This is a cat-and-mouse game that might work for a while, but will stop working if the various ad blockers catch on to your scheme. Or, you can use server-side advertising insertion where the calls to the advertising server are made by the streaming server, which creates a single manifest file for the complete video, with all ads inserted. This defeats ad blocking, but might limit the ability to prevent fast-forwarding through the ads or the same level of reporting as client-side advertising insertion.

In my view, the best approach would be to eliminate ad blockers as a product category and to make it much tougher for users to load them. Google removed Adblock Plus and other ad blockers from Google Play 2 years ago, using the rationale that “your app interferes with or accesses another service or product in an unauthorized manner.” Yeah, it’s called stealing. While Android users can still get Adblock Plus from other Android stores, it seemed like a real statement, like CVS discontinuing the sale of tobacco products. Sadly, Google didn’t do the same for the Chrome Web Store.

I get that some ads are obnoxious. But if visitors don’t like my ads, they should avoid my site, not use a technology that lets them steal my content. And responsible companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla shouldn’t facilitate access to such technologies.

This article appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Streaming Media as "Ad Blocking: It’s Not User Choice, It’s Stealing.”

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