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Is Ad Blocking Destroying the Web as We Know It? Is That Even a Bad Thing?

By Alexander MaiselPublished October 11, 2015

Apple's decision to allow users to block ads in its Safari web browser for the iPhone reignited the war over ad-blocking.. Here, we examine how this war began and what is at stake in this feud, which has pitted Internet users against their favorite content creators from across the web.
By Alex Maisel, 10/11/15

All you want to do is distract yourself from studying for those prelims next week. It's Sunday afternoon, and you've got all night to study; you can afford to watch some cat videos, maybe take a BuzzFeed quiz (or five), right?
Just before you can take in the experience of finding out which Taylor Swift tattoo you should get or which Spice Girl you are based on your zodiac though, you're forced to deal with a slew of pop-ups and advertisements. You, annoyed by the intrusion into your few moments of peace, surf the web for some software to block ads from your mind and your computer screen. AdBlock Plus, Ghostery, and recent players like Crystal and Purify promise to cure your Internet experience of these nuisances. These ad-blocking extensions, however useful, have come under fire in recent weeks after the introduction of ad blocking on Apple's iOS devices. With a large percentage of websites using ads as their only or primary source of revenue, many in the industry fear that the rise of ad blocking will throttle profits and hamper innovation and publication on the web.

Ad blocking is far from new. Its roots are traced backed to 1994, when now-defunct internet browser Netscape Navigator allowed users to disable web-pages from auto-loading images. This early innovation sped up the browser significantly and allowed users to focus only on the text-based content they were seeking. However, as content became increasingly based on graphics and videos, such "ad-blocking" would not work, and Netscape's users were unable to access large swaths of new content being produced. In response to this shift, web developers began producing extensions, or small programs that could be added to a browser from which blacklisted content was known to come from an advertiser. For example, Google's, the world's most popular web advertiser, is unable to display content when an extension like AdBlock Plus is installed on a user's browser.

As great as browsing the web and not having to watch or look at intrusive ads sounds, the notion is a double-edged sword in itself. Many industry analysts believe the rise of ad blockers will stifle profits for many sites, especially smaller ones with no alternate source of revenue. In explaining the controversy, Matthew Yglesias, a Vox News contributor, called advertising "a godsend to smaller operations." Not only does it "drastically reduce the need for sales overhead", but it also allows small editorial teams to focus on growing and cultivating their audience, while monetization largely happens in the background," continues Yglesias. So then, how do we balance the negative effects these ads have on our web experience with the need for web content creators to reap profits for their labors?
Well, the industry itself has begun to strike back in a handful of ways —some appear to be signs of progress, while others casts doubts on the future of the free web. The primary method, known as "native" advertising, forces web designers to integrate advertising seamlessly into their sites while not obstructing the desired content. An example of this includes BuzzFeed's "sponsored articles," written by companies like GE and Dunkin Donuts in the same style as normal BuzzFeed content, but include clear links and offers for the advertising company's product. Some analysts believe this native format will continue to grow in commonality and eventually dominate internet advertising. After all, it is nearly impossible for ad blockers to stop this sort of sponsorship, as it is integrated seamlessly into the sites normal, free content. The second, and arguably more insidious approach to combating is ad-blocking is counter-blocking software. If a site using this method detects that a user has an ad blocker enabled, it will not display any of its content to the user—until he or she disables the ad blocker. Defenders of this approach argue, "‘In the past, the understanding was implicit. Publishers gave people content and put ads on the side thinking the value exchange would happen. But now the ad has been taken out, people don't realize that blocking ads is sabotaging the creation of content.'" So, these proponents argue, an ad blocker has no right to access this valuable content.
Do we truly want an internet ruled by intrusive advertisers? Or are we willing to make sacrifices to push content providers advertise in a way that doesn't take all the fun out of our cat videos? Only time will tell which path the Internet community will take, but in the meantime, I'll be staying nice and content with AdBlock Plus on Google Chrome, even if it does mean a few less articles than I'd get to read if I didn't care about my screen being filled with ads.