It amazed me the other day, when I commented on twitter in favor of AdBlockers, that there are still people believing the rhetoric that choosing not being subjected to ads is somehow cheating the system (and of course they'd tell you so by calling you a 4 year old, har har). How naïve can you be, pal?

There are two main issues with this kind of comments.

One question is that of relevance: some people believe that morality is absolute, and of course they have just the right kind of it. Everyone has a different set of standards of what is right and wrong and we need to accept this as a fact. It is not enough to feel outraged by something to make it universally unacceptable, there need to be other objective reasons too. In particular, if you feel that it is a moral imperative to watch or read ads and doing otherwise is somehow wrong or morally unacceptable, that's not a good reason why that those ethics should apply to anyone else. I equally feel that is wrong and morally unacceptable for companies to try to manipulate my buying choices, and to track my browsing in any way I don't agree with explicitly. Treat your morality like your intimate parts. Everybody has them, but keep them to yourself, thank you very much, I don't want to know.

Another question is that these complaints are factually incorrect or misinformed. Appeals to gut feelings and "the companies would fail" are not valid arguments, they are appeals to emotions and consequences. As technology evolves some parties will be better off and some others will be worse off. Ultimately it's up to companies to keep up with innovation and not vice versa. Some companies fail all the time and we are under no obligation to prop them up artificially.

Take a free newspaper like the "Evening Standard". The paper is distributed free every day in the UK, in particular in London. It has both fixed costs—the cost of writing it, for example—and variable costs—the cost of printing it and distributing it in most tube stations, for example. It sustains itself mostly through ads, but also, I assume, through its influence and pervasiveness. Remember that not all ads appear as ...ads.

I can get this newspaper and read the ads, or not, and that's OK. I can cut them out or put a sticker on them and give the paper to my wife to read and that's OK. I don't see why doing exactly the same thing online should be different.

Except when we look at their online presence they become all self-righteous about adblockers.

Evening Standard ad blocker nag

In particular the site has barely any fixed costs once the printed edition is written and like any site it has practically zero variable costs. That means that providing an extra copy of their site is substantially free to them, once the cost of making the original is paid for, and they make an "original" anyways when they print the free paper version. Surely this nag is lying to you once enough people have seen the ads, as in fact the paper makes millions, and I can guarantee you it not going to be disable when the only difference that you make by accepting ads is making someone rich without any effort on their side.

The second part of the nag is also a lie: you can freely browse the site with an adblocker on. Clearly they want you to do so—because of the influence, remember?—but they would rather have you disable your ad blocker and give up your privacy as well.

What is even more interesting is the lying by omission. What are you giving up by disabling your adblocker? Your privacy. Would you freely give corporations and governments a list of all the political topics that interest you, so that they can trying to influence you or put you under surveillance if they feel it's appropriate? I hope not, but that's exactly what you are giving up by turning off an adblocker.

Ads track who you are across sites. This is enabled by ad-networks owned by google, facebook, twitter, etc. and it is called tagging. Once you are tagged by any of these networks, they pretty much all can track you wherever you are on the web (well, technically wherever you are which has ads or twitter buttons, or facebook comments, or..., which is probably everywhere), and this includes foreign government agencies that do not have your best interests at heart.

What makes that much worse, it is that not all sites with ads that tag you, protect your privacy either. Many sites where you have a registered user—act which typically includes your name, email, gender, etc—will sell your data to ad networks and governments, which will then be able to connect your browsing navigation with your personal information. They can also purchase much nastier, more intrusive information about you which you are not willingly giving away. For example, do you like to read about Chelsea FC on the Evening Standard? Or about a particular political party? That creates a profile of you, which is then either collected directly by ad networks and resold, or sold by the sites themselves. Do you search with google? Do you not think they create a profile about you based on your searches and then use it to profile ads? They say so in their terms of use.

A privacy reminder from Google

What if you lie in your profiles or never register? It doesn't matter. Companies like Facebook are under investigation because they create "shadow profiles" for non-users and "enrich" user profiles with the information others give away about you. Do you appear in a photo with someone, taken by someone else, and have tagging disabled? Facebook can potentially identify you and get your location from the EXIF tags in the photo.

Letting ad networks tag you around sites is abusing your rights big time. Technically, they ask for your permission in small print, but practically they do their best to do it secretly or nag you, push you or block you if you don't comply. How do I know? I know because I built some of this tech almost 20 years ago. Ad servers and content servers have been connected for that long.

It's not over! Here's other nasty stuff that ads will routinely do to you:

  • Ads track all your browser does. How long you stay on the page, how fast you scroll, etc. and report this data in near real time to the network. They are basically like police tracking bugs running continuously in your browser.
  • Ads add a huge amount of bandwidth to your browsing. I've seen cases of 50kb pages with 500kb of ads. This is important if you pay for bandwidth such as on a mobile network.
  • Ads add a lot of memory and CPU usage. My iPad crashes continually on sites where ads are enabled, once the ads load.
  • Ads are also a major source of malware (well, they are malware, in my opinion!)

Turn on an Ad Blocker and an anti-adblock killer now.

more serious information about the adware threat


Some commonly asked questions and their answers:

Question: Will enabling an Ad Blocker "starve" a site of revenue and make it go bankrupt?

Answer: Not necessarily. Remember that completely ad-dependent sites have a bad business model based on selling their users that will stop working as users become smarter. Using an ad blocker is such a way of being smart and forcing them to stop being bad players and force them to a better, more acceptable way of doing business. There are many options for monetizing that do not include serving crapware to their users.

Question: Well, ok, but why don't you simply go to paid-for sites only? What gives you the right to visit these sites?

Answer: The sites do. In fact, in large part they do so because they also have to allow Google to browse their site in order to index it. So I use this right. Does that offend you? I pay for sites that have a better business model, but simply putting up a paywall is not a good way of doing so. The BBC is paid for through a TV license, for example. Sky News through Sky subscriptions, and made available for all to promote Sky. I also have no way to force a site to stop tracking me in exchange for money.

Question: OK smartass, but there is not really a "safe" business model, is there?

Answer: It's funny that this kind of comment usually comes from the most "capitalistic" people. As markets mature, the price of goods will fall towards the unit cost because of free market competition. Also, unit costs will tend to shrink to the mere variable costs as economies of scale kick in. If you sell 100 copies of something, each has to "bear" the cost of 1% of the fixed costs. If you sell 100,000,000, the fixed cost is basically zero.

The cost of anything based solely on serving web pages will tend to go to zero. There is no "safe" business model that does not rely on some extra value being provided. This will affect every form of media based on selling copies: news, books, music, etc. Nothing of these trends depends on ad blockers, these trends are only "stoppable" by creating ad-hoc, anti-market laws that make it illegal to make copies of media, or force people to watch ads, etc. and I would not accept such laws as fair. Ad blockers only work in the same directions of these trends but do not create the business problem which is caused by these companies choosing an unsafe business model in the first place.


A software engineer & Stack Overflow alumnus in London. I write about software development, coding, architecture and team leadership. I also speak at conferences worldwide.

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