A Short History of Adblockers and Their Effect on Us

Ad blockers – and efforts to block the ad blockers – are big news on the Internet in a debate that pits publishers against the public, with the publishers wanting their advertising to be served to their readers, and a public that is increasingly displeased with the environment that paid advertising has created on the Internet. More and more websites are hiding their content behind paywalls, or nagging their visitors to either turn off the adblockers, add their website to the website “white list” or make a cash donation. In other words, extortion. Pay us or we will put up a paywall!

None of these strategies works very well, which is creating a crisis for online content providers who subsist on their advertising revenues. Most recently, Observer.com published a report yesterday about how Wired is combatting adblockers by blocking readers who have their ad blockers on from their website, unless they pay a fee of $1 per month. Forbes has also joined the growing list of sites that offer an “ad-light” option on 30 day trial, after which the option will cost around $15 per month.

The Interesting Thing About Ad Blockers

The interesting thing about ad blockers is that they don’t actually block most advertising. They are specifically designed to block display advertising – and they can only block display advertising when the advertising copy is “serviced” by a third-party, such as Amazon. The whole ad blocker controversy is really a backdrop for a good old-fashioned protection racket, rather like virus protection schemes or fraud alert sites (which shall remain nameless because we don’t want to get sued) that post phony consumer complaints and then charge the targets of the complaints to remove the negative comments from their websites.

Don’t laugh. People are making huge sums of money off these scams and, in a sense, adblocker blockers are in this category. It took us just ten minutes to figure out the work around and many other people have figured out the same solution. It’s out there, but it doesn’t get much attention because it isn’t possible to monetize the solution. Can’t sell a process that is nothing more than copying and pasting a few lines of code….but that is the real problem. A lot of people who are trying to making their livings off the Internet either don’t know how to read (much less write) code, so they are stuck with having to use off the shelf solutions. So, whether it is ignorance or laziness, there are a lot of people out there on the Internet who can’t be bothered to use the solution we’re about to show you.

It all seems rather silly, until you realize that literally hundreds of billions of dollars in annual advertising revenues are at stake here. All by itself, Google reportedly lost $6.6 billion in revenues last year because of ad blockers. Multiply that by the literally millions of websites attempting to earn advertising revenues to keep themselves afloat (and, boy, do we ever know how that feels) and the number could easily creep up to trillions – not billions – of lost revenues. Annually.

As far back as 2011, Henrik Aasted Sørensen, the graduate student who wrote the original Adblock program in 2002, expressed misgivings over the effect the program has had on the basic nature of the Internet and how it adversely affects many of the websites that rely on advertising revenues to stay in business. As the original inventor of the Adblock concept, Sorensen never actually made any money from his work because he distributed it as free-ware and never attempted to monetize it in the manner that his successors have.)

Articles about how programs like Adblock Plus are going to destroy the Internet are mostly being written by people who don’t remember – or never knew – that, once upon a time, everything on the Internet was free. Totally, one hundred percent free of charge content….if you could find it. That was the rub. Before the World Wide Web reared its ugly head, finding anything on the Internet required a significant expenditure of time and effort. Then, the web browsers came along to automate the search process….which is exactly when we found ourselves paying for the formerly free content we once enjoyed.

We also have to make a sharp distinction between “the Internet,” which is that information superhighway we have been hearing about for decades now, and the “World Wide Web,” which is the mechanism that manages the vast majority of the content that appears on the Internet.

A New Player Buys Into the Game

In 2006, the adblocker project was taken over by another developer, Wladimir Palant, who renamed the product Adblocker Plus, rewrote the code and built a company around the product which he monetized with a marketing scheme that some critics have called “virtual extortion.”

The marketing scheme works like this: big advertisers, like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, pay Adblock Plus exorbitant fees to “white-list” their advertisements. Adblock Plus reviews the ads the advertisers want white-listed, and lists those that meet their criteria, allowing them through Adblock Plus. According to one report, major corporations are paying as much as 30 percent of the additional revenues they would not have collected if their ads were blocked. Another report indicates that only 10 percent of the companies that have been white listed are paying anything at all.

Adblock Plus gets away with this kind of double-dealing, playing both ends against the middle, because they distribute Adblock Plus free of charge to consumers who want to block advertising from their computer screens, and they distribute it free of charge because that creates a market for their “white-listing” operation.

Now, another company, Sourcepoint, headed by Google alumnus Ben Barokas, has just raised $10 million in seed money to build and market a program that will make it impossible for adblockers to block publisher’s advertisements…for a fee, of course. Barokas, who cut his teeth with Admeld, an advertising servicing company, was greatly frustrated by the adblockers because they were adversely affecting his business, which he sold to Google in 2011 for $400 million.

So, in one corner, we have Adblock Plus charging advertisers to allow their ads through the wall that Adblock supposedly erects around an Ablock user’s computer while, in the other corner, we have companies like Sourcepoint selling programs designed to blast through any ad-block program. The inevitable result of this mashup is going to be a slew of lawsuits, as the makers of Adblock Plus and the makers of ad blocker blockers sue each other for everything from alienation of affections to restraint of trade.

And who’s in the middle of this mess? You. Me. Us. The Internet users whose eyeballs are being held hostage by these billion-dollar businesses.

Why Internet Advertising is Worse than Television Advertising

Right off the bat, we have a dizzying array of methods through which the advertising is served up to us, ranging from the passive, pay-per-click ads that don’t really bother you until you click on them, to splash pages that won’t let you through to the content you want until you have clicked on the advertisement, which interrupts the flow of the information you were trying to get when you bumped into the splash page.

Advertisers can purchase “splash under pages” that display over, under and around the content you want to read, and “splash over” pages that obscure the content until you take some kind of action which, if you aren’t careful, will take you to a completely different page from the one you were on. There are ads that look like editorial content (on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and, of course, Google,) ads that look like user contributed content (Pinterest, among others,) and the list goes on and on.

And then there are the stealth advertisements, the ones that masquerade as buyer’s guides. You know who they are: “The Top Tens” of garbage journalism, with their convenient links to whichever advertisers they are affiliated with. It’s even called Affiliate Advertising, in case you missed the connection. The mind-numbing number and variety of the advertisement we are barraged with online has, you guessed it, a mind numbing effect upon the Internet user, which is all of us.

That’s important because the advertising barrage forces us to put up mental walls to protect ourselves from the onslaught of irrelevant, erroneous or downright false information. In other words, we have to put our blinders on but that sometimes means we aren’t seeing things that we should see. Important information ends up getting lost in the shuffle because human beings (and especially male human beings) are highly distractable creatures, which makes us especially vulnerable to advertising that is specifically designed to distract us.

The advertising culture is dangerous in other ways. Much of the advertising we see online is chock full of misinformation and sometimes disinformation, the effect of which is becoming increasingly obvious in the current presidential campaigns. It is becoming more difficult to separate the facts we acquired through our consumption of respected sources of information from the claptrap we are being inundated with. Once upon a time, there was joke about how, if you saw it on the Internet, it had to be true. Today, the truism is that if you got it off the Internet it probably isn’t true, and the bottom line is that we can’t be sure of anything we read on the Internet…and a lot of that is due to the advertising.

But is an Internet Without Advertising a Viable Internet

Bindlesnitch is a business or, at least, it was supposed to be. We are now in the process of thinking about turning it into a nonprofit educational institution (those who can do; those who can’t teach) but even that takes money. If we can’t pay writers, editors, artists and designers, we can’t stay in business….but there are exactly two ways that a website can generate income: contributions and advertising.

Now that we know all about advertising as a revenue source, let’s look at the contributions picture.

Contributions come in two categories, freewill offerings and coerced payments. Freewill offerings are used by nonprofit websites,which request charitable donations from the users of their websites.Of course. the charitable donation route is only available to nonprofit websites or websites. Others, who are not 501(c)3 tax-exempt but operate to benefit the public good ask visitors to subscribe, but don’t impose a paywall to force visitors to cough up some cash. That’s far less invasive than erecting a paywall between you and your readers….and a lot less obnoxious. True, they usually use a splash page in an attempt to coerce some cash out of their visitors, but they are usually less disruptive than paid advertisements.

The coerced payments are imposed by the paywall that some websites have erected between their visitors and their content. The New York Times uses one, and so do a lot of other publications, but those coerced contributions probably won’t stretch enough to defray the Times’ astronomical overhead and operating costs. Some paywalls allow you to view a certain number of articles per month before you have to pay up. Some allow you in if you are following a link from a citation in another publication.

Like everything else in life, you get what you pay for….but you have to pay for it.

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