The act of blocking advertisements online is not new. People have been using ad-blocking scripts for years to stop advertisements being displayed when they browse the web. The question is: Is this ethical?
The BBC posed this question last week in an article entitled “Is it ethical to block adverts online?“.
The article spoke about the popularity of Adblock Plus; an ad-blocking script that has been downloaded over 250 million times and apparently boasts an active membership of 60 million users. The script allows users to disable video ads on YouTube, Facebook ads, pop ups, flash ads and more. It also disables tracking, malware domains and social media buttons.
As I am sure you are aware, advertising is the main source of revenue for the majority of websites online. Without advertising, most websites could not exist. So it is not surprising that many websites are fighting back against this. The BBC article spoke about how the free dating website OkCupid is fighting fire with fire. When someone visits their website using an ad blocking script, they will see a large banner that explains that their website is ad-supported. It goes onto advise visitors that if they simply pay $5, they can use their website free forever.
The Majority of Internet Users Believe Blocking Ads is OK
Let me just clarify one thing before we move on. I am self-employed through the internet. I make money from websites I develop and from writing articles for other website owners. Therefore, blocking ads is something that threatens my livelihood. I am, however, also an internet user. I have been using the internet actively since 1996 and I understand why many people want to block ads.
No one likes obtrusive ads. I hate websites that start video ads automatically or cram a dozen advertisements around an article that is only a few hundred words long. There is a genuine concern amongst all internet users about having their computer infected due to a malicious script, however I am of the opinion that most websites do not overwhelm visitors with advertisements. Malicious advertisements tend to be used more on porn websites, poor quality content websites and illegal download websites. So if you are having a lot of problems with viruses, you may want to review the type of content you are viewing online (or the type of content others are viewing through your computer e.g. friend, children, spouse etc).
The article on BBC did not tell me anything I did not already know. I have participated in discussions regarding this issue on webmaster forums many times over the years. What did shock me was the view of the general public.There are currently 602 comments on the article and the vast majority of commenters strongly believe that blocking ads is ethical and just. Some of the reasons given are a bit silly.
There were dozens of people who said that they block advertisements in order to reduce bandwidth. I appreciate that this may be a concern with people with terrible internet connections, though it is unlikely to be a major issue for anyone within the UK.
What most internet users seem to be unaware of is just how expensive it can be to host a website online. They are unaware that their own presence on a website costs a website money; particularly if the website hosts their own videos. This is not a small cost. Large websites spend thousands of dollars on hosting every month and displaying advertisements is the only thing that allows them to afford those costs.
The General Public Needs to Be Educated
I believe the general public need to be educated better about how websites make money. They need to be taught that:
- Hosting a website can be expensive.
- Paying authors to write content can be expensive.
- Ads support websites and allow content to be published free.
Despite this, as an internet user, I feel that everyone has the right to disable ads. I truly do. However, I also believe that website owners have the right to stop anyone who is using an ad-blocking script from viewing their website. Content costs money to produce and any visitor who blocks ads is costing the website owner money by increasing bandwidth but not supporting the website through ads.
The irony is that many websites use obtrusive ads in the first place because visitors became ad-blind. This encouraged many website owners to use more and more extreme measures of advertising products. We have seen this happen in large websites. For example, IMDB frequently places huge image background ads around their website to promote films.
Here’s the thing (Yes…there is always a thing!). Websites need to generate money. We all have bills to pay and mouths to feed. Certain types of websites can make money without advertising. For example, online shops profit from selling goods directly to customers whilst premium websites charge a fee to view content or participate (such as Rise Forums). The majority of websites can only be supported through ads.
If you block ads, the website’s income drops. How do you think website owners are going to respond to this?
I think it is going to go one of two ways. Websites may follow OkCupid’s lead, block people who do not want to see their advertisements and ask for a donation. The more likely alternative is for websites to deliver advertisements in an alternative format. If you find advertisements obtrusive just now, just wait until the articles you are reading have advertisement links inserted in every other paragraph. A lot of websites actually use product placement technique already and it is very difficult for ad-blocking scripts to stop.
Is Blocking Ads Ethical?
For those of you who do block ads, here is an analogy for you to consider:
An internet user who blocks ads is like a person who has sneaked into a cinema to watch a film free. The cinema obviously has overheads such as electricity, staff, equipment, renting the movie etc. If the cinema has a few hundred seats and only one person has sneaked into watch a film, I do not think that anyone would consider this to be a big problem. Now consider a cinema in which 50% of the people watching films have not paid for their seat. Ask yourself this:
- What do you think will happen to that cinema?
- Do you think the cinema would have the right to stop you using their cinema free?
You may think that I am being a little over the top with my analogy. The truth is that many websites are actually losing more than 50% of their revenue. Earlier this year the gaming website Destructoid spoke about this issue and noted that many websites have closed down because of this (they noted that some websites have seen a block rate of 75%!!). That has resulted in thousands of people losing their jobs because of people blocking ads.
Is blocking ads ethically wrong? I think it is, though there is no doubt that it is affecting people’s livelihoods. Just as we have seen a rise in the use of ad blockers, we may see a rise in the number of websites who are blocking those who do use ad-blockers. There are two sides to every story. The problem is that internet users have not heard the reasons why advertising is necessary. Therefore, we need to do more to educate them.
What’s your view on this issue? I’d love to hear your opinion.
Thanks for reading,