Don Marti

Sun 10 May 2009 03:37:30 PM PDT

Where is all the ad blocking?

Bruce Perens makes two arguments against web ad blocking in an LWN thread. First, users should comply with a norm that a user of an ad-supported resource will view the ads. Second, if enough users block ads, advertisers will stop supporting the standards-based web and move their ad money to some locked-down, DRM-infected proprietary system, for which there can't be a Free Software client.

"While you haven't asked an LWN reader to agree to display the ads along with the content, I think that every web publisher has a reasonable expectation that the ads will be presented. In the absence of explicit law supporting that expectation, the advertiser has the right to block viewers who themselves block the ads. Unfortunately, this will eventually lead to web sites that only present to properly DRM-enabled clients, locking out Open Source. And that will come about because some selfish folks used adblock."

Wait a minute, though. The web ad blocking game started about thirteen years ago, and with very few exceptions only one side has been playing. And few players have joined up even on that side.

Bust Banner Ads with Proxy Auto Configuration is just as easy as AdBlock Plus. It doesn't have the element-blocking stuff, but does get most of the major ad servers. Available since 1996.

The Internet Junkbuster might be even older, but today the domain is squatter-owned, and just runs ads. A bunch of others came along in the late 1990s, too. WebWasher, AdSubtract, and more. There was a whole proprietary software niche of "pop-up blockers" that you could also configure to block other advertising. (Heck, I wrote an ad blocker myself, using Apache's mod_proxy. I had, I think, one other user, and he rewrote it for Squid. Ad blocking was and is easy.)

squidGuard has been out since 1998.

@Man's Web Ad Blocking page, which dates back to 2000, lists many more.

You've been able to get an easy ad blocker for all the common browsers and platforms longer than you've been able to get BitTorrent or an Apple iPod. Users could start ad blocking with a quick download and a few clicks when Google was still google.stanford.edu. The old ad blockers were not elite hacker stuff. Try that proxy auto configuration thing. Easier than installing and configuring a Firefox add-on today. Or if you have an old Macintosh handy, CNet still has what I think is the last version of WebWasher for trial download. Most of the ad blockers were much easier to set up than lots of software that did catch on.

The IT Media and IT bloggers are suckers for two stories, in their many forms. Give them New Invention Will Enable Internet Rapscallions To Destroy Established Order or The Mainstream Media is Doomed and they're hooked. So, naturally, AdBlock Plus is a story. But the fact is that ad blockers have had plenty of time to catch on, they've been easy and accessible enough to catch on, but they just haven't caught on. Look at the logs of any web site that runs advertising, and the rate of blocking. A 2001 survey showed a rate of 1%, and it hasn't moved. I once asked for anyone to post a rate of even 5% on any site, no matter how nerdy, and got nothing. Compared to the other problems of running a web site, ad blocking is noise. That offer stands. Show me any site with 5% blocking, even if it's patchouli-scented-dvorak-keyboard-review.com.

Anti-blocking on the server side is just as easy as blocking, or easier. So why aren't more webmasters showing off their JavaScript and session tracking skills with anti-blocking hacks? Why is it such a big deal when someone does? Back in the Bubble 1.0 days, one startup came up with what it claimed was an ad blocker blocker—but an anonymous programmer "cracked" it a few days after release. A couple years ago, one blogger decided to block Firefox users because of AdBlock Plus, and provoked a nerd frenzy. Webmasters don't do countermeasures because it's just not worth it at anyone's rate of ad blocking.

Are all those non-blocking users just abiding by Bruce's norm that if you read the site you should read the ads? Unlikely. Nobody follows a norm of sitting through the TV commercials, or paging through the Sunday newspaper supplements, and the rate of non-compliance with other norms on the net is certainly higher than 1%. Show me 99% of web users following netiquette, abiding by no-flaming codes of conduct, and keeping their computers free of infringing MP3s, and I'll believe that ad blocking is so low because 99% of users are Boy Scouts.

Blocking is easy, webmasters don't fight it, and users aren't strict followers of any other rules. So why is ad blocking such a non-story? It's pretty clear that web advertising, on the whole, still gives the users more information value than it takes in annoyance. On IT sites, you get a sense of the market from watching the ads. When a vendor ceases to advertise a product, and just spews out the "We are committed to supporting our customers" quotes that show up in sites' editorial, the newly adless IT product is the walking dead and you need a migration path away from it. As a sysadmin or IT manager, you'll get that vital info sooner if you leave ads on.

The ads are also part of the "smell" of a site. Is snopes.com for real? Well, the ads look legit. A hinky site probably won't be running banners from one of the major ad-serving companies. If the Google ad algorithm has its doubts about a site, it'll switch from paid ads to Public Service Announcements. Fake dialog boxes, vibrating animations, or "click the monkey?" Sleazy site. Put your credit card away.

Advertisers telegraph their punches, so ignoring their ads entirely isn't very Sun Tsu of you. The Business Software Alliance is now running an ad on Slashdot.org. "Hey, Linux nerd! Laid off? Don't blow out your carpal tunnels scrounging contract work—just file a BSA report on your former employer. (And get the last word in that argument you lost when they installed the proprietary software you're going to rat them out for making extra copies of.)" If you're that nerd's manager, and you have to lay him off, better shred(1) the warez on the file server before you give him the bad news.

If an ad is relevant enough to get clicks, it's relevant enough to have Signalling value to non-clickers. So let's enjoy the brouhaha over every new ad blocker as it comes along, but remember the real stories are elsewhere.