Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley
The Ethics of Ad-Blocking
As the number of people who are downloading ad-blocking software has grown, so has the number of articles discussing the ethics of ad-blocking. And interest in the subject doesn’t seem to be waning: a recent article in Mashable was shared more than 2,200 times, and articles about the ethics of ad-blocking have also appeared in Fortune (“You shouldn’t feel bad about using an ad blocker, and here’s why” and “Is using ad blockers morally wrong? The debate continues”), Digiday (“What would Kant do? Ad blocking is a problem, but it’s ethical”), The New York Times (“Enabling of Ad Blockers in Apple’s iOS9 Prompts Backlash”), as well as many other publications.
Mind you, this is not a new debate. People were discussing it in the xkcd forum in 2014. The BBC wrote about the ethics of ad blocking in 2013. Back in 2009, Farhad Manjoo wrote for Slate.com about what he described as a more ethical “approach to fair ad-blocking”; he concluded his article with the lines, “Ad blocking is here to stay. But that doesn't have to be the end of the Web—just the end of terrible ads.”
As it turns out, we still have terrible ads (see Khoi Vinh’s blog post, “Ad Blocking Irony.”) And, as a recent report by PageFair and Adobe details, the use of ad blockers “grew by 48% during the past year, increasing to 45 million average monthly active users” in the U.S. alone.
In response, some publishers are accusing people who install (or build) ad blockers of theft. They are also accusing them of breaching their “implied contracts” with sites that offer ad-supported content (but see Marco Arment’s recent blog post, “The ethics of modern web ad-blocking,” which demolishes this argument, among other anti-blocker critiques).
Many of the recent articles present both sides of the ethics debate. However, most of the articles on the topic claim that the main reasons that users are installing ad blockers are the desires to escape “annoying” ads or to improve browsing speeds (since ads can sometimes slow downloads to a crawl). What many articles leave out entirely, or gloss over in a line or two, are two other reasons why people (and especially those who understand how the online advertising ecosystem works) install ad blockers: For many of those users, the primary concerns are the tracking behind “targeted” ads, and the meteoric growth of “malvertising”—advertising used as vectors for malware.
When it comes to the first concern, most of the articles about the ethics of ad-blocking simply conflate advertising and tracking—as if the tracking is somehow inherent in advertising. But the two are not the same, and it is important that we reject this false either/or proposition. If advertisers continue to push for more invasive consumer tracking, ad blocker usage will surge: When the researchers behind the PageFair and Adobe 2015 report asked “respondents who are not currently using an ad blocking extension … what would cause them to change their minds,” they found that “[m]isuse of personal information was the primary reason to enable ad blocking” (see p. 12 of the report). Now, it may not be clear exactly what the respondents meant by “misuse of personal information,” but that is certainly not a reference to either annoying ads or clogged bandwidth.
As for the rise of “malvertising,” it was that development that led me to say to a Mashable reporter that if this continues unabated we might all eventually end up with an ethical duty to install ad blockers—in order to protect ourselves and others who might then be infected in turn.
Significantly, the dangers of malvertising are connected to those of the more “benign” tracking. As a Wired article explains,
it is modern, more sophisticated ad networks’ granular profiling capabilities that really create the malvertising sweet spot. Today ad networks let buyers configure ads to appear according to Web surfers’ precise browser or operating system types, their country locations, related search keywords and other identifying attributes. Right away we can see the value here for criminals borrowing the tactics of savvy marketers. … Piggybacking on rich advertising features, malvertising offers persistent, Internet-scale profiling and attacking. The sheer size and complexity of online advertising – coupled with the Byzantine nature of who is responsible for ad content placement and screening – means attackers enjoy the luxury of concealment and safe routes to victims, while casting wide nets to reach as many specific targets as possible.
As one cybersecurity expert tweeted, sarcastically rephrasing the arguments of some of those who argue that installing ad-blocking software is unethical, “If you love content then you must allow random anonymous malicious entities to run arbitrary code on your devices” (@thegrugq).
Now, if you clicked on the link to the Wired article cited above, you might or might not have noticed a thin header above the headline. The header reads, “Sponsor content.” Yup, that entire article is a kind of advertising, too. A recent New York Times story about the rise of this new kind of “native advertising” is titled “With Technology, Avoiding Both Ads and the Blockers.” (Whether such “native experiences” are better than the old kind of ads is a subject for another ethics debate; the FTC recently held a workshop about this practice and came out with more questions than answers.)
Of course, not all online ads incorporate tracking, not all online ads bring malware, and many small publishers are bearing the brunt of a battle about practices over which they have little (if any) control. Unfortunately, for now, the blocking tools available are blunt instruments. Does that mean, though, that until the development of more nuanced solutions, the users of ad-supported sites should continue to absorb the growing privacy and security risks?
Bottom line: discussing the ethics of ad-blocking without first clarifying the ethics of the ecosystem in which it has developed (and the history of the increasing harms that accompany many online ads) is misleading.