Cod­ing war over ads gets even hot­ter

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FACE­BOOK STARTED THIS BOUT. The com­pany tried mak­ing its web ads in­dis­tin­guish­able from con­tent, to make Adblock’s job more dif­fi­cult. In ex­change, users got the op­tion to use Ad Pref­er­ences to block ads from spec­i­fied busi­nesses. The com­pany claimed that peo­ple blocked ads be­cause they are dis­rup­tive and slow, not be­cause they don’t want to see them. Part of its mis­sion is to “cre­ate con­nec­tions be­tween peo­ple and busi­nesses.”

The move didn’t go down well, and a new fil­ter for Adblock Plus ap­peared within a day or two, which cir­cum­nav­i­gated the Face­book trick­ery. Adblock once again re­moved the ads from Face­book’s side­bar and news feed. It was not a per­fect so­lu­tion, and Face­book warned that it may also re­move posts from friends and pages. Face­book went to work to block the block on the block. A back and forth fight soon de­vel­oped, each side try­ing to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the other.

To com­ply with FTC rules, ads have to be iden­ti­fi­able, and that means Adblock al­ways has some­thing to work with—it’s just a mat­ter of find­ing out how Face­book iden­ti­fies them. Cur­rently, both sides are busy cod­ing to de­feat the other, with the “win­ner” chang­ing ev­ery few days.

Adblock is used by over 200 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide, and is a ma­jor an­noy­ance for com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions be­cause it di­rectly af­fects the bot­tom line. As Adblock’s Ben Wil­liams put it, “This sort of back-and-forth bat­tle be­tween the open-source ad-block­ing com­mu­nity and cir­cum­ven­ters has been go­ing on since ad-block­ing was in­vented.”

It’s a clas­sic con­test, be­tween lib­er­tar­i­ans and com­merce. On one side, we have the free­dom from ads, from be­ing tracked, slowed down, and an­noyed. On the other, we have com­pa­nies be­ing stopped from re­ceiv­ing fair com­pen­sa­tion for ser­vices, be­ing ef­fec­tively held to ran­som by a third party. Nei­ther side looks likely to re­lent, or ul­ti­mately to win, ei­ther.

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