The ad blocking debate continues to rage on, showing no signs of slowing. A tsunami of mixed opinions and bad misunderstandings. 

The latest high-profile figure to publicly grab the wrong end of the stick entirely is culture secretary John Whittingdale, who last week referred to ad blocking as “a modern day protection racket” in which publishers have to pay to appear on a whitelist.

John Wittingdale culture secretary

Whittingdale stopped short of announcing an outright ban on ad blocking, but said he would “consider what role there is for government.” 

I don’t disagree that ad blocking is an issue that needs to be addressed, and quickly. But Whittingdale's assertion that all the blame lies with consumers and ad blocker providers is plain wrong.

Here’s why…

You cannot compare ad blocking to film or music piracy

Calling ad blocking modern-day piracy is ridiculous. It isn’t modern-day piracy at all. It’s technology giving more power to the consumer and therefore forcing changes in the market. 

When somebody pirates a piece of music or a film, that’s it. No money goes to anybody who had a hand in producing it, and you can’t monetise somebody listening to an MP3 on their laptop.

With ad blocking it’s completely different. People might block your main source of income, which is undeniably a problem, but you still have that audience and therefore you can still find other ways to monetise that audience

One such way could be improving display ads with UX in mind and definitely not inserting autoplay videos into the middle of an article. 

To refer to ad blocking as piracy puts all of the blame on the consumer, which is entirely unfair given how utterly unsightly and out of control online ads have become in recent years.  

The blame is split between a number of different parties, all of whom need to work together.

A politician coming out and demonising individuals who choose to block ads is hardly likely to win them over.

Whitelisting is free for SMEs

The culture secretary’s whole ‘protection racket’ argument is pinned against the idea that businesses are being forced to pay some kind of bribe to appear on the list. 

Aside from his comments being a bit of a kick in the teeth to the consumer given Three’s recent findings that people actually have to pay for ads on mobile, this is also somewhat misleading.

Three mobile ad blocking deal with Shine Technologies

Small-to-medium sites or blogs do not have to pay a fee. They merely have to meet the required standards to be whitelisted. 

Managing larger sites, however, inevitably requires an enormous amount of admin. There are manual processes involved, which require time and labour, so it’s hardly surprising that there’s a fee attached. 

I’m not absconding ad blocking sites from blame here, but as I’ve said in other posts on this issue it’s easy to just say ‘ad blockers are bad’, stick your head in the sand and pretend that’s all there is to it. 

But ad blockers have succeeded for a reason, and they’re not going to go away. 

If the government really wants help they should work with the ad blockers, perhaps offering funding to large publishers who agree to meet the terms for acceptable ads. 

Just a thought..

Publishers are not free from blame

A lot of discussion on this issue seems to surround the idea that publishers are the innocent victims in all of this. 

In a talk I attended a while back one newspaper advertising manager claimed, steadfastly, that publishers are in no way to blame for ad blocking.

Instead, he said, it is the dodgy streaming sites et al with all their awful popups and autoplays. 

He’s not wrong on the latter part – those dodgy streaming sites have certainly been a big driver, and it’s likely many people downloaded an adblocker for those sites without turning it off for the sites they don’t mind so much. 

But to claim publishers have no share of the blame is either dishonest or outright delusional. 

To illustrate my point, I present you, once again, with this classic from The Independent:

Annoying display ads

Only clamping down on ad blockers glosses over the other issues

Ad blocking has, at the very least, opened up a proper debate about the impact of crappy ads on UX, and it has forced publishers to think differently about how to make ads more palatable or to consider other revenue streams. 

Some are now panicking because, through sheer laziness, they pumped more and more display ads into content – videos, scrolling banners, irrelevant recommended articles, you name it – and effectively put all their eggs into that basket. 

To only clamp down on ad blocking ignores the underlying issue: consumers have grown increasingly tired of sites awash with awful, garish ads that ruin the user experience. 

If ad blockers are to be outlawed – which hasn’t been seriously discussed yet, but, let’s face it, is one potential outcome – then surely the offending publishers will just carry on as before. 

In that case, it’s the consumer that ultimately suffers. 

Conclusion: stop dishing out blame and work together

I’m not trying to shift blame onto any one party here, but I have become increasingly alarmed by the direction of the discourse around ad blocking. 

High-profile figures such as the culture secretary seem to talk as if the fault lies with the evil ad blocker providers and those immoral consumers who choose to use their products. 

And he’s not the first person to make a comparison to the music and film piracy issues of the past, a completely irrelevant comparison as far as I’m concerned and one which demonises the individual rather than focusing on the bigger picture. 

Ultimately, all parties – ad blocker providers, publishers, consumers and the government – need to come together to address the issue. 

What we need is sensible, open-minded debate. What we don't need is yet more divisive rhetoric from people who don't really know what they're talking about.  

Do you agree with the culture secretary’s comments? Let me know in the comments below…

Jack Simpson

Published 10 March, 2016 by Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (4)

Andrew Girdwood

Andrew Girdwood, Head of Media Technology at Signal

I'm not sure I agree. If someone downloads an album without paying for it the artist still has other ways to monetise that relationship. They can sell concert tickets to the new fan or merch. The initial act of piracy is still piracy though.

As a hobby blogger, I try and offset my ever increasing hosting and technology costs through ad income. When someone accesses the blog, reads that content but blocks the ad then they're a cost. It's arguably a worse form of piracy than the stolen download.

That said; ad blocking is a thing we created with too many bad ads, it's here to stay and the ecosystem needs to move on.

over 2 years ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

@Andrew - I see your point about ad blockers becoming a cost, and I'm not completely absolving ad blockers from blame. But (as you hinted at in the last part of your comment) some of the blame has to sit with the ad industry too, and I don't believe the culture secretary's comments reflected that.

over 2 years ago

Simone Kurtzke

Simone Kurtzke, Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Robert Gordon University

Jack, in answer to your question: is John Whittingdale clueless? Of course he is! Just like Theresa May and her snoopers' charter. I realised some time ago that these people (and many, many others) don't understand the internet. AT ALL. They are not of the internet (like we are), but for some reason are allowed to legislate about it. It's quite bizarre. Aaron Swartz (one of my heroes) was a victim of the same thing (in the US). I bet Theresa's and John's computers are riddled with spy- and malware and they are generally fairly passive / helpless when it comes to new technology... (and that it's usually their kids who sort out the mess).

On a general note, I support publishers whose content I value and woudn't use an adblocker in those cases. In recent years however due to the rise of ads and the tedious attempt at 'personalisation' I'm using fewer sites these days and I'm also browsing less.

Generally my digital consumption is now much more curated and sites (incl. apps, social media, etc.) that don't meet my needs are no longer included in the consideration set (they don't get my attention full stop).

Make of that what you will - I'm talking as someone who's been online since 1996 and who's pretty much seen it all. My views may not necessarily reflect the majority, but they are informed by a deep understanding of the internet, its technology and users, over 20 years.

over 2 years ago

Paul Tebbs

Paul Tebbs, Account Manager at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

I guess what this really boils down to is: do publishers have a divine right to stick ads in front of us? Technological advancements pose a threat to all sectors and it is the responsibility of those companies (not the government) to adapt to those changes. On one hand, adblockers could be very positive in the sense that they could de-commercialise / de-monopolise the media. However, it could be argued that certain types of journalism would cease to exist (based on the cost of conducting the research) without the big budgets of some of these media companies.

over 2 years ago

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