From Blockers to Traffickers: The Hidden Implications of Ad-Blockers

Ad-blocking is fast becoming the new normal.

Global use of mobile ad-blocking technology grew 90 percent in 2015, and at least 419 million people worldwide are blocking ads on the mobile web, according to a new report from PageFair and Priori Data. The publishing world is in the midst of a crisis, or as the MIT Technology Review calls it, an arms race. As Internet users continue to seek out uninterrupted content, companies across a number of industries find themselves vying for precious ad space, losing revenue, and uncovering the more subtle consequences of manipulating the experience of browsing the web.

A Call Against Arms

On March 12, the World Day Against Cyber Censorship, the company AdBlock teamed up with Amnesty International to run, of all things, an ad campaign. A series of banner ads led readers to articles written by former CIA analyst Edward Snowden and the members of the Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot.

The real conversation-starter in the advertising world, however, was the way the banners were served up: Instead of buying space, the campaign used the spaces AdBlock had freed up by blocking “unacceptable ads.” For 24 hours, not only did the Chrome and Safari extensions block other brands’ ads, it actually replaced them with Amnesty International’s banners. The campaign reached an estimated 50 million users.

Though the initiative circled the globe and brought widespread applause for both Amnesty International and AdBlock, the implications of the campaign are less straightforward.

“If we put the legitimacy and creativity of the campaign to one side, AdBlock’s gesture actually reveals something very worrying for the industry – the fact that ad-blockers are able to replace advertisements as they see fit,” argues Arnau Vidal, a digital strategist at H+K in Madrid. “Ad-blockers have the potential to become huge alternative advertising networks without paying for a single space.”

Where is the limit?

The initiative by AdBlock and Amnesty International was an exception to AdBlock’s typical business practices, but it does show that potential for the ad-blocking industry to become a “delete and replace” business is less far-fetched than it might seem.

Bear in mind that ad-blocking companies are supported through the money some advertisers pay for the blocker to whitelist their ads. What would happen if a company wanted to go a step further? Instead of just removing its name from the blacklist, what if an advertiser was able to pay an ad-blocker to display its ads in the other spaces the blocker controlled?

Bill Williams, head of operations at AdBlock Plus, acknowledged at a SXSW panel in March that although AdBlock Plus does not currently allow companies to display ads in blocked spaces, “the possibility does exist.” He also said that there was a “very fine line” between the two scenarios and that “the name of this type of software should really be web customizer, not ad-block.”

“Brave”-ly Muddying the Waters

So fine is the line, in fact, that it may not exist. Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich recently launched Brave, a new ad-blocking browser that replaces the “unacceptable ads” it blocks with others from its own advertiser network. The replacement ads promise to be less invasive and enhance user experience. The platform also promises to pay users to view the ads it serves up. Brave keeps 15 percent of the ad revenue it generates, pays approximately 55 percent to the publisher for making use of its space, 15 percent to the new ad supplier, and returns the final 15 percent to the end user, who can either keep the profit or donate it to the platform where they saw the ad.

Controversy followed hot on the heels of the launch and media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post were quick to sound the alarm. In fact, 17 members of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) sent a letter to the founders of the platform arguing that “your plan […] to donate to us some unspecified percentage of revenue you receive from the sale of your ads on our sites, cannot begin to compensate us for the loss of our ability to fund our work by displaying our own advertising.”

Most recently, in response to the growing use of ad-blocking plug-ins and browsers, the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) proposed the creation of a global advertising watchdog to regulate Internet ads, while others have suggested advertisers create content that is authentic, entertaining, and evokes emotion to increase viewership and reduce blocking. AdBlock’s partnership with Amnesty and the emergence of Brave are, it seems, only the beginning of what promises to remain a heated debate.

posted by Magnify Team | July 8, 2016@

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