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.
  • OnkelCannabia
    Advertisers have brought this on themselves. I used a PC with a 3 GHZ single core when my main PC had hardware trouble and I could barely surf the internet because the ads brought it to its knees. Once I installed adblock plus performance was normal again.

    Then there is all those ads trying to trick you. Fake download buttons, fake warning messages, scripts that install toolbars without your consent and whatnot. I daresay surfing the internet without adblock is more dangerous than surfing the internet without a good firewall (as long as you still use the windows firewall or some other basic protection).

    I don't just use adblock plus I recommend it to everyone for their own protection. Especially those that don't know much about PCs. Not only are they dragging your bandwidth and CPU down, they are actually a security risk.
  • positr0n
    The author failed to explain how not watching an ad is stealing. Who gets the "stolen" ad time money? If its MY attention the ads are aiming for, then I can chose what to watch or what not to watch. If I throw away junk mail is that also stealing? Poorly written and conceived article.
  • derekullo
    I agree Ad blocker is wrong

    Noscript > Ad blocker
  • Zaranthos
    Advertising is wasted on me even if I look at it. I don't click ads and I don't go buy stuff because I saw an advertisement. So blocking it just removes the pesky annoyance of blinking, annoying, trickery, spyware, adware, lies, deception, stealing MY bandwidth that I PAY for to look at legitimate content, etc.

    The current state of much advertising is close to terrorism for your computer. Hijack you with deception and inject ads into your browser. I could go on and on. It's not some passive thing like radio and TV you can ignore because it tries to take over your life and force you ingest what it shoves down your throat. The normal working state of computers is destroyed by advertising at any cost and the consumer be damned. It's not just a few bad apples either it's legitimate companies like Microsoft (Bing toolbar), Oracle (Java), etc. Sure you can argue the user should pay attention to check boxes and agreements before clicking yes but most users do not because those things are time consuming impediments to what the user wanted to do.

    So advertisers drove users to extreme measures of trying to block every ad known to man because advertisers abused us. You have only yourselves to blame.
  • jimmysmitty
    The biggest problem I have is the popups and the ads that take you away from the page itself. I have been to some sites that without the TPL lists in IE or Adblocker in FF I will get pushed out of the site to their site.

    On top of it, 95% of the ads are junk and all they do is expose PC novices to more risk. When I worked at a local PC shop we always set the TPL lists in IE to block the ads and when we did a virus cleanup/optimization we did the same. It helped prevent novices from being exposed to stupid ads that they might click on and download junkware/malware unknowingly.

    On top of that, some ad servers get compromised and are injected with malware ads that use exploits and loopholes in IE/FF/Chrome/Safari to install their programs even without the users knowledge and that is wrong.

    I am all for websites and content providers making money for the mostly free content they provide but they should also make sure the ads they are using are not malicious and are legitimate ads as well. Until then I will continue to use TPL lists and adblocker to keep my PC and my families PCs safe.
  • CRITICALThinker
    The two reasons I use adblock are 1 - because I am sick and tired of the 1+ minute unskippable youtube ads, I was fine with the banners and other ads on the page, as it pays for the content, youtube as well as the content creator. 2 - because I hate browsing and being a tab hoarder (not the worst offender, but I often have 15+ open) and having soulnd playing on 5 of them randomly. If I frequent sites that have no sound enabled or video ads I will add them to my personal whitelist
  • whiteruski
    Site I support I disable ad-block for. Sites that are not usable without ad-block, and without being able to use ad-blocking software, I would not frequent. Its that simply.

    If the site doesn't take time to pick its sponsors and place appropriate ads, it hurts the site (because I like them less) and it hurts the advertiser (because I really like them less).

    I watch less TV as a result of advertising and I would consume less internet sites as well. I already do this on youtube where commercials are intrusive to the end user experience and I simple close the tab and do something else.

    I don't feel like spending 10 minutes out of every half an hour watching ads and I certainly will not tolerate it on the web.
  • Wolfshadw
    So is it also "stealing" every time I change the channel or mute the TV whenever commercials come on? How about when I add my phone number to the Government Sponsored, "Do Not Call" list? Isn't that ad blocking as well?

    I've realize that the intention of advertisement is to make an individual aware of some product or service, but I, for one, do not need (or want) it shoved down my throat. If I want a product or service, I have the resources to find it on my own.

    -Wolf sends
  • 2Be_or_Not2Be
    If sites like Tom's will let themselves be held financially liable for any harm incurred to my PC when a malware ad from their advertising networks infects it, then sure, I'll put them on a whitelist.

    Also love the use of the specious argument - "Every time you block an ad, what you're really blocking is food from entering a child's mouth." Think of the children, you ad-blocking heathens!
  • Zepid
    If you want me to watch ads then use your power as the press to push for legislation to remove bandwidth caps. I'm not going to waste one ounce of my 250GB Comcast data cap on non-consensual ad data.