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
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.
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.”