Is it Immoral to not Block Ads?


  1. Aug 5, 2015
    Added a comparison between ad blocking and fighting government spying, and a clarification to the paragraph where I speculate how the web could be if it didn’t run on advertising.

A lot has been written about ad blocking since Apple announced support for content blocker extensions in iOS 9. Jean-Louis Gassée summarized the debate really well in his piece, What The Ad Blocker Debate Reveals:

We feel cheated and rightly so. As users, we understand that we’re not really entitled to free browsing; we pay our bills with our selves: When The Product Is Free, We Are the Product. The problem is that we feel betrayed when we find out we’ve been overpaying. We’re being exploited — and it’s not even done nicely.

I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own.

I have been running an ad blocker for as long as I can remember. And I feel one hundred percent justified in doing this.

I have been running an ad blocker on my computer for as long as I can remember, and I will install one on my iPhone on the day iOS 9 is released. And I feel one hundred percent justified in doing this. When people tell me they use the web without an ad blocker, I am genuinely surprised. Why would anyone willingly put up with this shit?

I love how Apple has implemented the content blocking mechanism, maximizing performance and protecting my browsing history from the developer of the ad blocking extension itself. Content blocking will also work automatically in apps that adopt the new Safari View Controller API for their web views.

But, the argument goes, isn’t ad blocking the new stealing? Or at least the new speeding, something everybody does even though they know it’s wrong? Nope. As a cyclist who is routinely put in danger by speeding motorists, any argument that compares some non-life-threatening activity to speeding doesn’t go down well with me. But aside from that, it’s not unethical to make it harder for companies to shove bloatware and spyware down our throats. Companies that would love nothing more than tracking our every move. Companies that deliberately ignore the very standard designed to allow users to opt out1 of being tracked.

Publishers say they have no choice but to succumb to the ad networks’ practices. Here’s Rene Ritchie from iMore:

While we sell premium ads directly to advertisers, that only fills a small subset of the required “inventory” to support the network [of their sites]. Some 85% of ads we served last month were “programmatic”—provided by ad exchanges like Google Adx and Appnexus. Those exchanges are pretty much black boxes. We get a tag, we insert it, and ads appear.

I don’t know, but if 85% of your ad inventory can’t be served by advertising you can control, then maybe your business model is flawed anyway, ad blockers or not.

Let’s not forget that advertisers are not our friends. They try to manipulate it us into buying stuff we don’t need.

But ad blockers are ruining the web, right? Aren’t I actively harming my favorite web sites? To some extent, that’s probably true. Will it lead to a reduction of good content? Maybe, though anecdotally, the number and obtrusiveness of ads on a site doesn’t seem to be positively correlated with the quality of the content. I also admit that I’m selfish. I’d still run an ad blocker if all web ads were unobtrusive, had no performance impact, and ad networks would not track me. Why? First, because I can.2 Second, because I think advertising is bad for me and I owe it to myself to fight it.

Let’s not forget that advertisers are not our friends. They try to manipulate it us into buying stuff we don’t need. Advertising just isn’t a good thing for society.3 I would even argue it’s our moral responsibility to block out as much advertising as we can from our lives. In some sense, blocking ads is like using encryption to make it harder for governments to spy on us – something too few us do.

Is there really a web left to ruin?

For that matter, is there really a web left to ruin? As far as I’m concerned, advertisers and publishers have already done a pretty good job on that front. Yes, a big part of the web runs on ad money. And yes, that means lots of services are “free”. But should we be happy about that? I’m not so sure.

Who’s to say the web wouldn’t be better if more of it worked like Wikipedia or OpenStreetMap? Is it morally justified that Facebook and Google make billions of dollars in profit off advertising? If users are obliged to tolerate ads to get a service for free, shouldn’t that obligation stop when the company offering the service breaks even?

Had the web developed differently, it’s possible that the leading social network in 2015 would be run by a dedicated community, funded by donations, and the Internet would be a better place for it. Who knows, maybe, having its users’ best interests in mind, it would even provide an open API. The same argument can be made for web search and other essential services that are currently ad-funded.

tl;dr If your income directly or indirectly comes from advertising, you have my sympathies. But don’t expect my cooperation.

  1. The notion that users should have to opt out of something so obnoxious is crazy in itself, of course. ↩︎

  2. By the way, is anybody working on an ad blocker for podcasts? ↩︎

  3. That’s not to say that some forms of advertising (like putting a nice sign outside your store) aren’t more ethical than others (like telemarketing or trying to trick me into clicking on an ad). ↩︎