As we continue to swim in a sea of never ending content, where music, television and news are all instantaneously, effortlessly and often freely available to us, it isn’t surprising that Adblock Plus, the free service that aims to save consumers from annoying ads online, is now the world’s most popular browser plug-in, with more than 50 million unique users.
The appeal of ad blocking is obvious; browse your favourite websites without being bombarded with flashing, singing banners selling you magical weight loss products and get rich quick schemes. But many have criticized Adblock Plus and other ad-blocking software, especially sites that rely on third party hosted advertisements for revenue. These sites say that they rely on advertising to function and fear that the mainstreaming of ad-blocking will force them to shut down.
In 2011, due to it’s growing popularity, the then simpler Adblock underwent a makeover, adding a “Plus” to their name and renovating their plug in to include filtering options, which now allow users to choose what ads they want to block and on what sites. Instead of automatically blocking all ads, Adblock Plus now allows consumers to personalize their online advertising experience, picking and choosing which ads they want to let through, which in turn gives users the option to support certain sites by accepting to view the advertisements posted on their pages. To encourage people not to shut themselves off completely from online advertisements, Adblock Plus has also created a ‘default filter’ that allows what they call ‘acceptable ads’ through, which by their criteria (created with the help of feedback found on their forums) constitutes ads that are un-animated, clearly separated from the content on the page, and clearly listed as an advertisement. Because it is not yet possible for the plug-in to automatically recognize ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable ads’, Adblock Plus makes agreements with websites that agree to adhere to ‘acceptable’ advertisements. Once the agreement is finalized, the companies are put on the “whitelist” (so far 148 sites and services) and will be viewed by Adblock Plus users who subscribe to the default filter.
Till Faida, co-founder of Eyo, the firm that owns and maintains Adblock Plus, while admitting that it is important for people to understand that ads are essentially what keep the internet free, believes that it is the consumers right to choose what they think is acceptable and what isn’t, and hopes that by giving the consumers selective power there will be “an incentive for advertisers to create a better user experience, rather than simply drawing attention.” This places Adblock Plus in an interesting position, as the intermediary between the content producers, advertisers, and consumers, their goal is to find a common ground that all three parties can be satisfied with; an ambitious goal, to say the least.
Adding to the controversy is the recent discovery that Adblock Plus charges a fee for big companies who want to get their name on the whitelist. If you’ve been wondering how Adblock Plus makes money, this is your answer. According to their website, whitelisting is free for small-medium sized websites and blogs, so you don’t have to worry about them cornering the little guy. Nonetheless, there is something convoluted about the whole thing. Adblock Plus is a service that blocks annoying ads for it’s customers, that also happens to get paid by large websites (which Google is rumoured to be one of) to let certain ads through? To quote Faida himself, “there could potentially be an issue of conflict of interest here.” You don’t say?
That being said, just because something appears distrustful, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. In an effort to stay as transparent as possible, Adblock Plus has released the numbers behind their dubious whitelist, and they show that out of the 777 applications received for whitelist approval, they only accepted 148, and out of that 148 over 90% were free. So, before you point your finger at Adblock Plus and yell extortion, take a second and think about the current state of online ads. Faila believes that “internet advertising was blinking, popping up and bannerizing itself to an early grave.” I happen to agree. In 2013 we saw new creative ways to include consumers into the creation and funding of projects; several websites started introducing a donation option on their website in exchange for no ads, thanks to Kickstarter, film and radio projects were funded entirely by consumers, and Netflix introduced half a dozen online original programs free of ads. Maybe advertisers and websites need a push to realize that they need to re-evaluate how they approach the online market, and maybe Adblock Plus is the company to do it.