Ad-blocking, ethics and the internet’s financial model

www-iconBack in September the BBC ran an article speculating that the rise in ad-blocking software may mean the death of the free internet. A few years ago they even asked if blocking adverts was ethical. These are interesting questions.

A lot of websites rely on advertising income to keep them going. There are costs involved in producing a web site. Hardware needs to be purchased (or rented) and managed, software needs to be maintained and, on bigger sites, writers need to be paid. It’s the same with television. Virtually all channels – the BBC being the obvious exception – need to advertise to pay for their output. The BBC doesn’t because they get their income from the licence fee. Sky even has the temerity to charge people a fee to view their channels and show adverts too.

Now, I would imagine a lot of people record programmes on the commercial channels and just fast-forward through the adverts. Likewise, I would imagine that just about everybody clicks the ‘Skip Ad’ button when viewing YouTube content. And a lot of people do indeed run ad blocking software.

One of the problems is that there’s often no obvious connection between the adverts and what users get as a result of them. Our data doesn’t seem to belong to us. Web sites use it for profit and advertisers use it for profit but it doesn’t always feel like we’re getting much in return. In many cases we are getting free content for putting up with adverts of course but that connection clearly isn’t obvious enough to stop us trying to avoid adverts.

Maybe there’ll come a day when our personal data really is ours and we’ll get paid to provide it to companies in return for agreeing to view their adverts. One might get, say, £5 for agreeing to white-list adverts from a particular company during a given month. The business requirement would then be that the advertiser earns enough from its adverts to cover the cut it gives the websites it advertises on and the cut it gives users to view its adverts. Would that work? I have no idea.

Of course the web could move towards a more paid-for-content model too. A lot of newspapers operate paywalls these days but I have no idea how successful they are. I suspect that if we had to pay for all content we’d soon find there’s an awful lot of it we could do without, so I’m not sure that would work.

One thing that could be addressed right now, though, is the sheer volume of advertising we’re subjected to. When I go to YouTube I’ve gone to look at a cat doing something funny and of course I’m going to ‘Skip Ad’. I didn’t go there for the advertising. When I’m watching a film, I don’t want adverts to ruin that experience every 15 or 20 minutes, so I’ll certainly fast-forward through them. I’m pretty sure people would be more tolerant of advertising if there was less of it and that doesn’t necessarily need to ruin the financial model for the channels (TV or internet) either. Fewer advertising spots would mean they’re more valuable. The channels could charge more for them and, I’d suggest, there’s a greater chance the user would watch the adverts, so it would work out better for the advertisers too.

If there’s one simple advert on a website I’m unlikely to bother finding a way to block it. If a website bombards me with adverts, pop-ups, pop-unders and such I’m certainly going to want to block them out.

So, in answer to the BBC’s question as to whether it’s ethical to block adverts, I’d say it is. It’s as ethical as it is for advertisers to assume they can just interrupt my life and advertise to me at will. But I also appreciate that advertising pays for a lot of the content we get and I just can’t see a paid-for internet being particularly successful.

The challenge is for websites and advertisers to find a way to make us happy to see their adverts and I’d suggest they will be more successful doing that with a carrot than a stick. The fact the we get free content in return for putting up with advertising clearly isn’t enough and instead of advertisers bemoaning that fact and casting us as ungrateful little urchins they need to do some thinking and find a model that works for everyone.

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