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Adblockers Aren't Part Of The Problem- People Are

Troy Hunt, a well-respected security researcher, and public speaker, wrote a blog post recently about how adblockers are part of the bad experience of the web. His article is about a sponsorship banner he posts at the top of his site, just below the header. It's not flashy, intrusive, loud, obnoxious, or a security or privacy concern. He gets paid better for the sponsorship strip than he does for ads, and the strip is themed with the rest of his site. It's out of the way of the site content, and scrolls with the page. In my opinion, it's in perfectly good taste. See for yourself:

Screenshot of Troy Hunt's homepage, showing the sponsorship strip just below the header.

Troy was surprised to find out, however, that his sponsorship strip is not showing when AdBlock Plus or UBlock Origin ad blockers are installed and enabled in the browser. He is understandably upset, as he is avoiding everything that piss off the standard web user when it comes to ads. He reached out to ABP about whitelisting his strip, and they've agreed it's hardly violating web user experience. However, someone added it to the EasyList filters, which means any ad blocker outside of ABP, will filter the sponsorship strip.

So, here's my question- are users wrong in filtering it?

Let's look at the state of web ads over the past couple decades. First, there was the ad popup, where the web page you were visiting would popup an ad right in front of the page. Sometimes they were difficult to close, and sometimes closing one would open a different one. Some pages would open dozens of popups, some fullscreen. It wasn't long before browsers across the board blocked popups by default, baked right into the browser.

Screenshot showing a Windows XP desktop littered with ad popups.

After popups were unanimously blocked across every browser, advertisers turned to ad banners. These were just as obnoxious as the popups, even if you didn't have to close a window. The flashed, blinked, falsely promised free trips and gadgets, and even sometimes auto-played videos. They were rarely relevant to the site content, but web page owners were promised a revenue per click, regardless. So, the more you could fit on the page, the more likely someone would click on an ad, and you would get paid. Web page owners placed these obnoxious ads above the header, below the header, in the sidebars, in the middle of the pages breaking up paragraphs in posts, in the footers. In some cases, the screen real estate dedicated to ads was more than the actual content on the site.

An image showing a collection of annoying banner ads.

Some HTML5 and CSS3 solutions now include overlays, that have to be manually closed or escaped, in order to continue parsing the site content. Unfortunately, ad blockers don't do a great job at blocking these. While they're great at finding and filtering out elements, blocking CSS overlay popups seems to be too difficult, as they are prevalent on the web, much to the chagrin of many ad block users.

Screenshot showing a CSS overlay on a web page showing an ad.

Ad blockers then became a mainstay. Web users were pissed off due to Flash crashing the browser (most ads were Flash-based), slowing down their connection to download additional content (at the time, most were on dial-up on slow DSL), and in general just getting in the way. It got so bad, that DoubleClick's "privacy chief" wrote a rant about ad blockers, and how they were unethical, and ad blocker users were stealing revenue.

As web page analytics started becoming a thing, more and more website owners wanted to know how traffic was arriving at their site, so they could further increase that traffic, and in addition, increase ad revenue. Already, page counters like StatCounter existed, to help site owners understand partially how traffic was hitting them, where they came from, what time, what search engine they used, how long they stayed, etc. Well, advertisers started putting these analytics in their ads. So, not only did the website owner know who you were, the advertising company did too. And worse, while the website owner might not be selling that tracking data, the advertiser very likely is.

The advertiser also became a data broker.

But here's the tricky part- ad blocking was no longer enough. Now website owners were adding JavaScript trackers to their HTML. They're not visible on the page, so the ad blocker isn't hiding an element. It's not enough to block ads any longer. Privacy advocates begin warning about "browser fingerprinting" based on the specific details in your browser that can uniquely identify you. Those unique bits are then tracked with these tracking scripts, and set to advertisers and data brokers, which change many hands along the way. The EFF created a project to help users understand how unique they appeared on the web through the Panopticlick Project.

Screenshot of my browser results after testing at https://panopticlick.eff.org.

As a result, other browser extensions dedicated to blocking trackers started showing up. Things like Ghostery, Disconnect, Privacy Badger, and more. Even extensions that completely disable JavaScript and Flash became popular. Popular enough, that browsers implemented a "click-to-play" setting, where flash and other plugin content was blocked by default, and you would need to click the element to display it. It's not uncommon now to visit a web page where you tracking blocker will block a dozen or more trackers.

Screenshot of Ghostery blocking 20 trackers on a web page.

I wish I could stop here, but alas, many advertisers have made a turn for the ugly. Now, web ads are the most common way to get malware installed on your computer. Known as "malvertising", it is more common at infecting your computer than shady porn sites. Even more worrisome, is that this trend is shifting away from standard desktops to mobile. Your phone is now more valuable than your desktop, and advertisers know it. Never mind shady apps that compromise your device, ads in legitimate "safe" apps are compromising devices as well.

Infographic showing the threat of malvertising on mobile in 2014.

So, to summarize, the history of ads has been:

  1. Annoying popups.
  2. Annoying banners.
  3. Annoying CSS overlays.
  4. Transparent trackers.
  5. Malvertising.

So, to Troy Hunt, here's my question: Given the awful history of advertisements on the web, are you honestly surprised that users don't trust a sponsorship strip?

Consider the following analogy: Suppose I brought a bunch of monkeys to your home, and they trashed the place. Smashed dishes, tore up furniture, destroyed computers and televisions, ruined floors, broke windows, and generally just destroyed anything and everything in sight. Then, after cleaning the place up, not only do I bring the monkeys back, but this time, they have digital devices (cameras, microphones, etc.) that report back to me about what your house looks like, where you live, what you're doing in response to the destruction. Again, you kick them out, clean up the place, and I return with everything as before, with some of them carrying a contagious disease that can get you and your family sick. I mean, honestly, one visit of these monkeys is enough, but they've made three visits, each worse than before.

Now, you show up at my doorstep, with a well-trained, leashed, groomed, clean, tame monkey, and I'm supposed to trust that it isn't anything like the past monkeys I've experienced before? As tame as it may be, call me rude, but I'm not trusting of monkeys right now. I've installed all sorts of alarm and monitoring systems, to warn me when monkeys are nearby, and nuke them with lasers. I've had too many bad experiences with monkeys in the past, to trust anyone bringing a new monkey to the premises.

So, you can see, it's not ad blockers that are the problem. It's the people behind the advertising firms and it's the people not trusting the Internet. The advertising c-level executives are trying to find ways to get their ad in front of your eyes, and are using any sort of shady means necessary to do it. The average web user is trying to find ways to have a pleasant experience on the web, without getting tracked, infected with malware, shouted at by a video, while still being able to consume the content.

People arguably don't trust ads. The people in the advertising firms have ruined that trust. You may have a clean privacy-aware non-intrusive sponsorship strip, but you can't blame people for not trusting it. We've just had too long of a history of bad ad experiences. So, while reaching out to the ad blocker developers to whitelist the sponsorship strip is a good first step, ultimately, if people don't trust it, and want to block, you can't blame them. Instead, continue focusing on what makes you successful, for your revenue from the ad blockers- blogging, speaking, developing, engaging. Your content, who you are, how you handle yourself is your most valuable ad.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Slavko | December 2, 2016 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks for nice summarization of the history. Yes, some people think, that i have computer, monitor and browser only to i can see their adds... But they forget, that it is my computer and only i have to decide what will be displayed/used and what will not.

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