Friday, 27 May 2016

On ad-blockers

I am roused from my dogmatic slumbers, by Tim Challies' thoughtful post on the weighty question of deploying an ad-blocker in your web-browser. Tim, whilst recognising that this is a legitimate area for disagreement, sees himself as morally compelled to not use an ad-blocker. You can read his piece at this link.
My response has got a bit long. But in case what Tim wrote troubled you, and you want to weigh it up in your own conscience, here is the other side of the argument.

Summarising Challies' argument against ad-blockers

Tim generally hates adverts, and finds them usually annoying - "for every useful ad, I have had to endure ten thousand awful ones". But, he concludes that he must endure them, to keep a clear conscience. His reasoning is simple: that this is the implicit bargain made between the creator of a webpage, and its reader. The creator makes content available, and the condition is that you view the adverts. By deploying an ad-blocker, Tim reasons, the reader breaks his agreement: he takes the content, but declines to view the adverts. The reader causes the creator to incur costs; likely "very minor—a fraction of a cent, perhaps—but it is still a cost". Moreover, many writers write in order to receive financial remuneration for their work, not an unreasonable desire. By not viewing the ads, Tim says, you're depriving the writer of his pay. As such, viewing the adverts is an application of the Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12, to do to others what you would wish them to do to you. Conclusion: it's wrong to deploy an ad-blocker.


I disagree, on the following grounds.

Firstly, a minor argument based on a technical point. Tim's argument only applies to adverts for which the advertising is paying on a "pay per impression" model - i.e., where the advertising is paying for adverts to be shown. Many (most?) Internet adverts are on a "pay per click" model, where the advertiser only pays if adverts are clicked on (or some other action completed). In the case of "pay per click" adverts, Tim's argument fails. For such adverts, by allowing them to show, but not clicking on them, Tim is consuming content, but the author of the web page receives nothing. Tim might here say "but I might click on it if it's a good advert - and I can't know that unless I allow the advert to display". Quite so. But this means that Tim's argument is more than it appears: it's not simply an argument as to why you should not block adverts. It's more than that: it's an argument as to why you should also look at them. Does Tim take care to make sure he looks at all the adverts on the page, so that the content author isn't deprived of potential pay-per-click revenue? Otherwise, for "pay per click" adverts, his allowing the adverts to arrive somewhere in his browser is a sham: it allows him to fulfil the legalities of his principle, but does nothing meaningful to assist the content author. This brings us to the major matter.

An implicit agreement?

The heart of Tim's argument is the concept of the purported "implicit agreement" between the content creator, and the website visitor - the agreement which the ad-blocking visitor (according to Tim) breaks his side of. Does, in fact, this implicit agreement exist? This is highly doubtful, to say the least. The concept of an implicit agreement is recognised in law. As such, Tim's argument can be tested in the real world. I am not aware of any jurisdiction in which the existence of Tim's implicit agreement has been upheld in court. In some jurisdictions, is has explicitly been argued, but always (as far as I am aware) unsuccessfully. For example, it has been attempted multiple times in Germany, where, a Munich court recently "dismissed the newspaper's argument that Adblock Plus was interfering in a contract readers were entering into with the newspaper that included accepting ads." Tim might respond that his arguments are only intended to apply to his own jurisdiction (Canada). This begs the question - has any court in Canada specifically given any credence to his theory? Tim's theory is open to the charge of being a piece of armchair lawyering, with no real substance to it.

To this, Tim could respond that he's not talking about what may hold up in a court of law. Law and morality are not identical. He's not, he might respond, talking about a legal contract, but something at a lower level. If this route is taken, it should be recognised as a substantial concession. Tim's description of the immorality of ad-blocking is self-consciously framed in terms of a broken agreement that causes one party negative financial consequences. That seems very like a legal matter. If it's not, then Tim's case seems to face the charge of being unclear, at the very least - he's framed it in terms of something that it isn't. He then needs to clarify what this "lower level" is, if that is his argument.

The Golden Rule?

It may be that the quotation of the "Golden Rule" is intended to cover this. If you put adverts on your content, then presumably you want people to see them. So, correspondingly you should be willing to view other peoples' adverts. The problem here, though, is that Tim is mind-reading the content creator. Perhaps the content creator is happy for some people to block his adverts. Perhaps the content creator thinks that it's better to have a larger community of readers, who are all happy, rather than a smaller community because some didn't want to see any adverts. Perhaps (this will apply only to some sites) the content creator just put the adverts up speculatively, to earn himself a take-away every now and again, and doesn't take the adverts anything like as seriously as Tim does. This then raises another technical point: the technology to detect ad-blockers exists. It's available, and not hard to implement. A number of websites do. You can show different content to people who deploy ad-blockers, if you want to. Of course, this action, of detecting ad-blockers, incurs a cost - but, if we are talking about micro-fractions of a cent, what doesn't? Every second you live, your body is using energy. If you say "hello, how are you?" to somebody in the street, then you forced them to respond, and use energy up on it. So, merely "causing a cost" simpliciter is not a reason to not do something - more argument is needed. If Tim doesn't dutifully read/watch 100% of adverts, then he pushes a cost onto the maker of an advert - they must work harder to make their particular advert compelling. Is there a sub-clause in the implicit bargain which makes this cost OK, but others not OK? My point here, though, is that a content creator can very easily put a message "Hi, I want you to see my adverts. If you don't want to, then please browse away - this content isn't intended for you". Tim simply assumes that this - the most extreme possible position - is the viewpoint of every content creator.

Note again, that if Tim's argument applies to adverts as a whole, then it applies to each of them individually. If it's wrong to deprive the content creator of 100% of his revenue (by Tim's reasoning), then it's wrong to deprive him of 50% of his revenue, or 40%, or, ultimately, any of it - he should have everything that's his, not just a part. Tim is duty-bound to make sure he looks at all the adverts on the page, not just some of them.

Must we also purchase?

Furthermore, ultimately, how are adverts paid for? They are paid for when people buy the things that are advertised. If the things advertised are not bought, then they are no longer advertised - and the revenue stream dries up. Does Tim consider himself duty-bound to purchase things shown to him in adverts on web pages? Tim might reply "that's not part of the implicit bargain - I might buy something if I like it, but I'm not compelled to by my side of the bargain". This response would concede the conclusion that Tim is duty-bound to at least make sure he scrolls to each of the adverts, not just avoid blocking them. It is also in tension with Tim's statements of annoyance about how intrusive advertising is, which beg the question as to whether Tim simply wants to appease his conscience by allowing adverts to be loaded somewhere in the browser, but not where they might be in danger of being seen by him - which seems a rather legalistic evasion (what's the point of adverts that aren't seen?). Tim might further respond to this that "it's the advertiser's job, not mine, to make them eye-catching". This, though, begs the question - the more detailed and specific Tim's unwritten "implicit bargain" becomes, the more we are justified in doubting its existence. How does Tim know that the content creator, on every website he visits, sees the bargain in the same way as Tim, to such a level of detail, when the creator has not actually chosen to say so (which he is very free to do)?

Going outside the Internet

Another way of seeing the weakness of Tim's argument is to point out some of its logical implications. Pointing out logical implications does not in itself invalidate an argument. But, if the implications are absurd or unacceptable, then this indicates the existence of a weakness in the argument. Tim's argument appears to be structured as follows:

1) X is provided to me at no cost, but supported by advertising
2) If I take X, then unless I view the advertising, I am taking something for nothing
3) Taking something for nothing is wrong, so I should not do it
4) Therefore, I should view the advertising whenever I take X

In this particular case, "X" is the content of web pages. But, the form of the argument itself does not depend on that. It could be anything. Such as, for example, free-to-air TV channels. Does Tim, if/when watching a television program, make sure that he does not absent himself during the adverts? That any toilet breaks, or tea breaks, are taken during the program in equal measure to the advertising? Otherwise, he's taking the free program, but not viewing the adverts that support it. There are myriads of examples in this line. Free newspapers - the pages of adverts should be opened as much as the pages of content. Sponsored articles on blogs (like on Tim's) should be read.

Where's the threshold?

Again, if Tim should reply "no, you don't have to read them - it's the advertiser's job to make them interesting/eye-catching. You are free to skip the ones that you do not find interesting" this begs the question: why is not the website visitor entitled to decide, in advance, that he finds all adverts uninteresting? Can he not decide, a priori, that he does not like advertising? Why must he formally re-state that decision on every single specific advert on a site? Isn't it legalistic if you're deciding to give the 10 adverts on a page each a 0.5 second opportunity to impress you? For Tim's argument to have force, don't you actually have to weigh them each up? Note: I'm not legalistically asking for the exact number of seconds. I am asserting that Tim's argument requires reasonable consideration, not just casual flick-pasts.

Has the site owner already broken the implicit agreement?

Cannot a visitor decide that, all things considered, he considers it not worth his while to review them all to pick out the one in ten thousand which (according to Tim) are not awful? Does not the fact that 99.99% of them are not worth seeing justify him in declining to invest time in searching for the needle in the haystack? If the implicit bargain requires that the website visitor be reasonable, why does it not include that the content creator be reasonable and (implicitly) agree not to show adverts which are 99.99% terrible? Isn't agreeing to view adverts that can be fairly assumed in advance to be 99.99% an unconscionable action? Again, it seems that Tim's implicit bargain contains a hefty load of fairly precise small-print.

Online reality

Finally, Tim's argument treats the real state of the Internet in 2016 as hypothetical. Ad-blocking went mainstream a few years ago. According to this link, in 2015, 198 million people were doing it, including 45 million in the US and 12 million in the UK. Realistically, every content creator knows that ad-blocking is common. Ad-blocking is a big enough phenomena to explicitly address. As such, Tim's assumption of an "implicit agreement" in the situation where content creators are not doing this, is gratuitous.

Friday, 13 May 2016


This article is both very thoughtful, and from an experienced and
qualified source: