Why Face­book Can’t Stop The In­ter­net’s War With Ad­block Plus

The tit-for-tat code war be­tween sites and software has just stepped up a notch, as Caro­line Preece ex­plains

Micro Mart - - Kodi -

Since the birth of Ad­block Plus (ABP) – the in­ter­net’s most pop­u­lar method of cre­at­ing an ad-free user ex­pe­ri­ence – in 2011, it’s been a con­tro­ver­sial piece of software. The bat­tle be­tween its ad-block­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties and the rev­enue gen­er­at­ing gi­ants of the in­ter­net has been build­ing in in­ten­sity for years, and now the big com­pa­nies ap­pear to be hit­ting back against the com­pany in what­ever ways they can.

For those yet-to-be-ini­ti­ated: ad block­ers like ABP are add-ons for browsers in­clud­ing Chrome, Fire­fox, Opera, Sa­fari, and In­ter­net Ex­plorer. ABP is by far the most pop­u­lar ex­am­ple, and thus the tar­get of in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies ea­ger to cir­cum­vent its ef­fects and the po­ten­tial dam­age to their busi­ness models.

This takes form in var­i­ous ways. Many pub­lish­ers’ method of tack­ling ad block­ing software is to re­strict ac­cess to con­tent un­til users man­u­ally dis­able them, so as to avoid los­ing rev­enue from their visit. Of course, this can have lim­ited suc­cess, if read­ers in­stead ex­er­cise their right to sim­ply go to an­other site in­stead.

The use of ad block­ing software isn’t al­ways to do with not want­ing to see ad­ver­tise­ments, ei­ther. Many en­list their help to block mal­ware or pre­vent their ac­tiv­ity from be­ing tracked through ex­ploited code present within ads. It’s also worth not­ing that some sites are se­verely slowed down by ads, and some users are sim­ply look­ing for a faster, more user-friendly ex­pe­ri­ence from sites that they see as be­ing crip­pled by their cre­ator’s de­ci­sions. What­ever the rea­son for us­ing them, Ad Block­ers have had a huge im­pact on on­line businesses, with sites re­liant on dis­play ads for rev­enue hav­ing to look else­where for mon­eti­sa­tion op­tions.

Face­book Is Fight­ing Back

Most re­cently, Face­book con­ducted a tar­geted at­tack on the Ad­block Plus when it launched a by­pass for the ser­vice, which had in some cases re­moved posts and pages from the viewer ex­pe­ri­ence along with ads. To do this, the so­cial me­dia giant blended the HTML of web ads and con­tent so as to make Ad­block Plus’ job im­pos­si­ble.

In an of­fi­cial blog post ap­pear­ing af­ter the an­nounce­ment, Face­book VP for ads and busi­ness plat­form, An­drew Bos­worth, said: “When they’re rel­e­vant and well-made, ads can be use­ful, help­ing us find new prod­ucts and ser­vices and in­tro­duc­ing us to new ex­pe­ri­ences... But be­cause ads don’t al­ways work this way, many peo­ple have started avoid­ing cer­tain web­sites or apps, or us­ing ad block­ing software, to stop see­ing bad ads. These have been the best op­tions to date.

“When we asked peo­ple about why they used ad block­ing software, the pri­mary rea­son we heard was to stop an­noy­ing, dis­rup­tive ads. As we of­fer peo­ple more pow­er­ful con­trols, we’ll also be­gin show­ing ads on Face­book desk­top for peo­ple who cur­rently use ad block­ing software.”

As men­tioned, the na­ture of the in­ter­net means that many read­ers are likely to go else­where for news and ar­ti­cles should their de­ci­sion to in­stall an ad­blocker be chal­lenged, but Face­book doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily have that prob­lem. Sure, peo­ple can head on over to Twit­ter or Snapchat, but Face­book still has built it­self a niche in peo­ple’s lives.

This move is no­table sim­ply be­cause Face­book is such a big player, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean it’s get­ting into a bat­tle that it can win.

Ad­block Plus’ Up­per Hand

The at­trac­tion of Ad­block Plus and other ser­vices like it has al­ways been its com­mit­ment to user ex­pe­ri­ence – it’s fer­vently on the side of us, the hum­ble in­ter­net browser, and that makes it pow­er­ful. Ser­vices like Face­book are en­tirely de­pen­dent on the good­will of users, and that loy­alty is in dan­ger of be­ing un­der­mined.

In re­sponse to Face­book’s work­around, Ben Wil­liams, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and op­er­a­tions man­ager for ABP’s par­ent com­pany Eyeo, re­leased a counter-state­ment say­ing: “This is an un­for­tu­nate move, be­cause it takes a dark path against user choice. But it’s also no rea­son to over­re­act: cat-and-mouse games in tech have been around as long as spam­mers have tried to cir­cum­vent spam fil­ters.

“In any case, it’s hard to imag­ine Face­book or the brand that are be­ing ad­ver­tised on its site get­ting any sort of value for their ad dol­lar here: pub­lish­ers (like Face­book) alien­ate their au­di­ence and ad­ver­tis­ers (the brands) al­low their cher­ished brand name to be shoved down peo­ple’s throats. Yikes.”

At the time of writ­ing, a work­around for Face­book’s work­around had al­ready been found. Two days af­ter the ini­tial an­nounce­ment, the open source com­mu­nity at Ad­Block Plus had al­ready come up with a fil­ter that could be added to the user­gen­er­ated block list. Your move, Face­book.

The Un­der­ly­ing Prob­lem

Al­low­ing its users to have more con­trol over what ads they see on Face­book is the site’s way of giv­ing a lit­tle con­trol over to its mem­bers, but this doesn’t com­bat the main rea­son for Ad­block Plus’ grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity. Many have wit­nessed on­line ads spin out of con­trol, with in­creas­ingly des­per­ate pub­lish­ers and busi­ness own­ers dou­bling down on dis­play ads in an ef­fort to com­bat fall­ing rev­enues. Users have been burned by pop-ups and in­tru­sive ad­ver­tis­ing, lead­ing many to turn to ag­gres­sive meth­ods of block­ing ads en­tirely, rather than sim­ply tai­lor­ing their ex­pe­ri­ence.

How­ever, as Face­book points out, Ad­block Plus is not the clearcut good guy in this sit­u­a­tion. The com­pany reg­u­larly en­gages in the prac­tice of charg­ing sites large sums of money for in­clu­sion on an ‘Ac­cept­able Ads’ whitelist, mean­ing com­pa­nies that are will­ing to pay out for the priv­i­lege will still be vis­i­ble to users whether they use the software or not.

“Some ad block­ing com­pa­nies ac­cept money in ex­change for show­ing ads that they pre­vi­ously blocked – a prac­tice that is at best con­fus­ing peo­ple and that re­duces the fund­ing needed to sup­port the jour­nal­ism and other free ser­vices that we en­joy on the web,” An­drew Bos­worth con­tin­ued.

“Face­book is one of those free ser­vices, and ads sup­port our mis­sion of giv­ing peo­ple the power to share and mak­ing the world more open and con­nected.”

By of­fer­ing prod­ucts and ser­vices for free, businesses have ac­ci­den­tally bred a cul­ture of com­pla­cency, and an on­line au­di­ence used to get­ting stuff for free is un­likely to jump at the chance to in­con­ve­nience themselves for the ben­e­fits of those things they take for granted.

What Now?

With Face­book and Ad­block Plus at a kind of stale­mate right now, on­line pub­lish­ing rapidly los­ing money, and many large or­gan­i­sa­tions re­sort­ing to pay­ing the con­sid­er­able fees that ex­empt them from hav­ing their ads wiped from the web, it seems for now that ad block­ers are win­ning the war. It’s un­clear whether Face­book or an­other com­pany could ever truly pre­vent ads from be­ing blocked with­out alien­at­ing pri­vacy-minded users, or those who have sim­ply be­come fed up with in­tru­sive, un­scrupu­lous, or badly thought-out on­line ad­ver­tis­ing in the past.

Ad­Block Plus’ ar­gu­ment that Face­book’s lat­est meth­ods are ‘anti-user’ has its prob­lems and in­her­ent con­tra­dic­tions, but it also can’t be dis­missed out of hand. What’s more, Ap­ple’s an­nounce­ment that it would sup­port mo­bile ad block­ing with its up­com­ing iOS 9 will surely fuel the de­bate. It would seem that the prac­tice is here to stay, for now, and the in­ter­net will soon have to ac­cept that fact.

“If noth­ing else all this at­ten­tion from Face­book shows that ad block­ing has fi­nally made the big time,” Ad­block Plus’ Ben Wil­liams added. “We’re ready for our close up.”

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