As you may have already read, the latest update to Apple’s mobile Safari browser allows for a controversial class of extensions called content blockers, which let the user’s device prevent certain kinds of webpage elements from loading. Those elements might include content types that:
The controversy arises mostly over the fact that content blockers can also be used to block ads, thereby depriving publishers of the revenue stream which makes their business possible. That’s no coincidence. Almost from the very beginning of the Web, ads have been one of the primary culprits in all four of the problems listed above.
And yet, there remain good reasons for wanting a sustainable ad revenue model on the Web. Even if you reject the notion that there’s an implicit social contract involved (i.e. in exchange for free access to “content,” you consent to have an advertisement displayed in your general direction), there are arguments to be made that the ad-supported model is more egalitarian than a directly paid model, since ads help subsidize a cost that not everyone could afford otherwise. Adbusters may be taking a principled stand, but if every periodical adopted its business model, the net effect would be the concentration of information in the hands of the affluent, at the expense of lower income brackets.
Granted, there no doubt are some who want to put ads altogether out of both sight and mind, and who don’t much care if that undermines the economic logic of the online publishing business. I suspect they’re in the minority, though. Most of us just want a Web that’s functional, safe and trustworthy.
For us, then, the debate is only about ad blocking to the extent that ads are one of the driving forces in making it less so. What we’re really interested in are transparency and security. Content blocking appeals as a tool for ensuring those values in the absence of better industry standards — or, barring that, government regulation. But, as Marco Arment pointed out when he removed his best-selling content blocker, Peace, from the App Store yesterday, content blocking can be a terribly blunt tool for a job that requires some nuance — especially if we want publishers to survive.
So the first order of business is to stop saying “ad blocking” when advertising itself is not the problem. “Content blocking” is not much better since it leaves unspecified the sort of content that we’re justified in blocking. What we really want is exploit blocking.
Once we’ve got the language right, though, we should follow by being conscientious about singling out content that is actually exploitative. That means, among other things, distinguishing between the advertising function of ads and the host of other functions they’ve been made to fulfill on the Web.
Which is where nuance comes in. How do we address the behaviors we consider exploitative without undermining the advertising model tout court? I refuse to believe that we have to settle for an all-or-none proposition — that acceptance of advertising as a revenue model requires the acceptance of the bad practices that have developed over the last twenty or so years. Part of the reason Arment withdrew Peace was that it threw out the baby with the bathwater, but is that to say we’re stuck with the bathwater?
To some extent, solutions are going to have to come from the publishers who sell ad space. Though often a bastion of bad ideas, Reddit has set a good example here by making its social contract explicit. The site serves relatively lightweight advertising and, in exchange, many of its users forego their usual reliance on Ad Blocker.
Yet, few publishers can deal in the sort of weight Reddit pulls on a daily basis. When you can count on several billion monthly pageviews, it may be easier to turn down the higher sales rates that come with giving advertisers access to user data. (That said, even Reddit has struggled to get out of, and stay out of, the red, relying in large part on venture capital to survive.) The simple fact of the matter is that most publishers lack the leverage to say “no” when advertisers ask for ads that do more than just display advertising — though it’s by no means clear that many publishers would have turned down the money that comes with enhanced advertising even if they could have afforded to do so.
The solution, if there is to be one, must begin outside the publisher–advertiser relationship, it seems. The one suggested by Apple’s embrace of content blocking is an alliance (some might say “conspiracy”) between platform providers and consumers. That’s bound to be a messy one for both publishers and advertisers, as well as a profitable one for Apple, as The Verge‘s Nilay Patel has pointed out. In many ways, it’s far from ideal — though even if Web ads were safe, functional and trustworthy as a rule, there’d still be exploits unrelated to advertising, and thus a need for exploit blockers. If there are other solutions less hazardous for the ad revenue model, we should be eager to explore them. For the moment, though, the strongest argument in favor of exploit blockers may simply be that there are no serious alternatives on offer.