Why Using an Ad Blocker Is Stealing (Op-Ed)

Forget about platinum and diamonds — attention is the most valuable commodity on Earth. That's why advertisers spend billions of dollars trying to grab a few moments of your time when you're watching TV, reading a magazine or surfing the Web. Online ads — from pop-ups that cover the page, to sponsored links that look like content, to noisy video ads that start playing out of nowhere — have a well-deserved reputation for annoying users. 

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However, trying to actively filter ads from websites is stealing. Services like Adblock Plus, which recently launched its own Android browser, are no different from a lock-picking kit for burglars or a lead-lined bag for shoplifters. Even worse, every time you use one of these services, you're enabling an extortion racket where ad-blocking companies charge content providers money to let their ads through the filter.
These days, most Web publishers rely on advertising to pay the bills. Some charge subscription fees, but for the most part, readers have shown that they aren't willing to pay for access to Web content. Even if they earn revenue from subscriptions or e-commerce links, few sites can turn a profit without running a substantial number of ads.

Full disclosure: like most web publishers, Tom’s Guide runs advertisements and is compensated based on a combination of impressions (number of ads shown), clicks and resulting sales. Largely because of Web advertising, journalists like me are able to support our families and commit full time to providing you with the best news, reviews, advice and entertainment possible.
Every time you block an ad, what you're really blocking is food from entering a child's mouth. According to one study, 144 million Web surfers use ad blocking. That adds up to a lot of lost jobs, all because some people don't want the inconvenience of having to close a pop-up or scroll past a flashy graphic.

If online advertising disappears, so do readers' choices. Only a handful of big-name content sites (e.g., The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal) will survive on subscription fees, though they will have to raise the prices. Any remaining content sites will be run by hobbyists, and many of them will find less-straightforward and more unethical ways than ads to make money (e.g., taking free stuff in exchange for positive coverage).
You pay for most Web content simply by paying attention. In fact, nobody's asking you to stare wistfully at the ads, just to stop blocking them. Maybe a banner will catch your eye and you'll click it one of these days, or maybe the message will get you thinking.
Unfortunately, ad prices keep sinking, while advertisers' expectations are rising. In print or broadcast media, companies are satisfied just to get a message out, but online, they expect immediate and measurable results. In many cases, marketers judge the success of their campaigns solely on clicks, and very often, they have to pay only for conversions.

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Imagine if Burger King refused to pay for a 30-second commercial it ran at 11 p.m. because not enough viewers stopped watching TV and ran out of the house to buy a Whopper. Around the Internet, click-through rates are quite low; one recent report has them at 0.06 percent — six clicks for every 10,000 banner ads shown — across the Internet. That's the difficult environment publishers find themselves in, so it's no wonder that they allow advertisers to try such aggressive efforts to reach their readers.
It's understandable that readers are frustrated. Content providers and ad networks need to do a better job of screening their ads to remove the most annoying and technically disruptive offenders. And there's no place for ads that spread malware — a problem easily avoided if you use antivirus software. Marketers also need to look beyond clicks and understand that successful advertising isn't always about getting an immediate response.
But ad blocking isn't the right solution to the problem of aggressive advertising — not only because it puts people out of work, but also because it leads to even more obtrusive marketing. As ad-blocking users steal ad impressions, publishers attempt to squeeze more responses out of everyone else. Eventually, content sites will start locking out visitors who have a blocker installed. This is an arms race that everyone will lose.

Some ad blocking services claim that they are not against advertisements, just obtrusive ones, and are trying to change the industry. "Many websites rely on advertising revenues, so instead of blocking all ads, we decided to try and encourage websites to use non-intrusive advertising," Eyeo, the company behind Adblock Plus, says on its website. The company runs a whitelist it calls the "Acceptable Ads Initiative." If they agree not to run certain kinds of ads -- text ads that interrupt the "flow" of an article, for example -- companies can apply to be put on the whitelist.

Threatening to block someone's source of income unless they comply with your demands feels more like extortion than encouragement. We've heard the same excuses from movie pirates who say that they're only stealing content because they don't like the prices or the DRM. But if you don't like Walmart's shoe department, you stop shopping there; you don't get to steal a pair of sandals in protest.

Some sites have to pay to get on the white list. On its site, Eyeo claims that "roughly 90% of the participants" don't pay to play but that "a few large entities" are charged.  According to one report, Web giants like Google, Amazon and Taboola (a popular network) are paying as much as 30 percent of their revenue to get whitelisted by Adblock Plus. We don't know for sure how many sites are asked to pay and exactly how much money changes hands, but no publisher should have to pay a toll to reach its readers.

One might argue that blocking ads, unlike downloading copyrighted music or shoplifting products, is legal. However, just because you can block ads, that doesn't mean you should.

Instead, let's reward marketers for running thoughtful, high-quality campaigns. Nothing motivates both advertisers and publishers like success. So, interact with the ads that speak to you as an adult rather than the ones that try to fool you into clicking, and spend more time on sites that offer a more palatable mix of ads. When companies see revenue going up on the right types of ads, they'll change their practices accordingly.

Follow Avram Piltch @Geekinchief and on Google+.  Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Avram Piltch is Tom's Hardware's editor-in-chief. When he's not playing with the latest gadgets at work or putting on VR helmets at trade shows, you'll find him rooting his phone, taking apart his PC or coding plugins. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram developed many real-world benchmarks, including our laptop battery test.