Ad Nauseum

Writing about disruption is apparently a lot more fun than experiencing it.

That was the humorously framed observation posted to Twitter by MacDrifter Thursday after the internet erupted with outrage over iOS 9 Safari content blockers.

To clarify, the anger is fairly one-sided; it’s coming from web publishers and writers who rely on advertising to sustain their businesses. People who consume content but have no vested interest in these web ads, on the other hand, cheerfully downloaded and enabled content blockers as soon as they were available in the iOS App Store. On Friday, September 18th, three of the top five paid apps there were content blockers.1

The reason people with iOS devices rushed to install content blockers is not as simple as some of the outraged articles written on the topic would have you believe. I don’t think most people inherently hate advertising. We’ve grown up with it. We’re used to it. I don’t know of any normal, responsible adults2 who don’t want the sites they enjoy visiting to survive and even thrive. But sometimes you’ll take whatever remedy makes the pain go away, even if that remedy introduces the risk of other long-term problems. And the manner of ad delivery on the web is in large part very painful.

Content blocking extensions for Safari in iOS 9 are probably the biggest Rorschach feature ever introduced in an operating system. Publishers and writers have decided that Apple is out to steal from them and starve their children; consumers of web content see it as Apple enabling the ability to finally regain some control over the wretched experience that the web has become.

Most reasonable people understand that advertising is important and necessary for web publishers and writers to survive. Even massively popular subscription-based media have always had to place ads throughout their content to pay the bills. It’s the same whether you are talking about printed newspapers and magazines or media that is based completely online.

Suggestions of simply charging a fee for ad-free content isn’t a realistic answer to the problem in most cases. Advertisers can outbid subscribers any day, and most sites will never have enough people willing to pay a recurring fee substantial enough to bridge the financial gap. Premium memberships that augment free content or paywalls that allow limited free viewing of content are viable strategies for some sites, but they aren’t going to replace advertising. If you think about how many sites you’d be willing to support per month to any meaningful degree and compare that to how many sites you regularly visit, the disparity should be evident.

But imagining as Dan Primack does in his epic rant on Fortune that the situation is as simplistic as readers being entitled thieves and Apple being a greedy robber intent on destroying the publishing industry is silly and naive.3 Why is cord-cutting a thing? Why is T-Mobile growing like crazy despite a still inferior network? Because when you poke needles in people’s eyes and tell them it’s for their own good long enough, they’ll seek alternatives, and they’ll completely stop caring about your financial reasons for doing so. That’s why people are blocking your “content”, Dan.4

The music industry went through this a long time ago, with much of the tech press cheering on the revolution. People started stealing music freely, until better legal options for online music consumption were created. People wanted change, and the music industry was dragged into it kicking and screaming while journalists wrote about the cluelessness of music executives and made fun of Luddites like Metallica. Again, much easier to be pro-change when it isn’t you being changed.

The modern web has been shaped into a pináta of advertising you have to beat through with a stick to get to the good stuff inside. Sites like that don’t make me want to engage with the ads at all, they make me mad, and I’ve never purchased things from people who made me angry if I had any choice in the matter.5

It’s even worse on mobile. Many times I’ve simply been unable to dismiss an ad, or the page keeps hopping back up to the top as things reload while I’m trying to read, or it’s simply so slow as to be unusable. If I literally can’t read a web page, I have to assume the site owners don’t think that it’s important for me to so long as I can be advertised to. If that’s not devaluing your own writing, I don’t know what is.

And all that is just the visibly annoying part. Ad networks are running code on our machines that the sites serving it to us don’t even understand what is doing. Chris Dzombak states the problem with this very clearly in ”Ad blockers aren’t killing the web; ad networks are killing the web”.

Ad networks, and the otherwise-reputable sites that use them, are auctioning the right to run untrusted JavaScript of unknown origin on my computer to any interested party. I get to say “no” to that.

Ad networks are actually slow, bloated, privacy-invading, insecure malware delivery mechanisms. They are not innocent citizens of the web being undeservedly decimated by Apple’s new version of iOS.

When a mainstream company like Yahoo! winds up presenting readers with malware laden ads, I think perhaps that meets the definition of being a valid complaint. I saw one writer on Twitter responding to this kind of scenario by pointing out that flash exploits don’t affect iOS, and he’s right, but why would I want to allow anything from a company that will try it to run on my phone? Isn’t that just passively accepting this practice? Just because it might not affect one specific device of mine doesn’t mean I should have to let people who implement this kind of security abuse near my systems. And the problem is, it’s impossible to know by simply browsing around which ads and ad networks are doing this.

Ben Thompson discussed reader entitlement and people believing they should have automatic, free access to online material in episode 51 of the Exponent podcast, but (in my opinion) he failed to completely acknowledge the fact that ad networks have equally acted with entitlement with invasive and experience-sapping behavior for years. It is entitlement of the highest order to run unsafe code on my computer or phone in the name of advertising to me. I do agree with Ben though that content blockers aren’t hurting the ad networks who are creating the problem, it’s hurting the publishers.

So why aren’t site publishers pushing back and trying alternative strategies? Some are, of course. Smaller sites who actually try to earn the goodwill of their readers often use far less invasive and completely acceptable and engaging means of advertising to them. Unfortunately, many of them will suffer as well if content blockers are used wholesale, particularly those that don’t allow for whitelisting and exceptions for acceptable advertising. Personally, I use content blockers that do allow whitelisting of sites on both Mac and iOS, because there are sites that I don’t want to punish for the misbehavior of others. But if a relative minority of sites are good citizens and the overwhelming majority aren’t, the good ones suffer and nothing changes. That puts us all in the situation where zero content providers are motivated to understand why people are fed up with the current model, and zero readers are motivated to care that sites are going to go under when most web advertising is blocked.

I completely understand why people whose livelihoods depend on being able to deliver ads to their visitors are angry about content blockers. It takes money out of their pockets when those ads aren’t viewed. But it’s either willful ignorance or just plain selfishness to pretend that security concerns and the complete lack of usability of most web sites aren’t real, material problems.

Needing to make a living is a valid reason to put ads on your website. It’s not a valid reason for introducing spyware and malware onto readers’ computers, tablets, and phones, and for making it impossible for them to dismiss your popups on mobile screens. It’s just plain disingenuous to slow the web, bloat page size, eat mobile bandwidth, render a large portion of the web unreadable on smartphones, reduce security and privacy, and then act stunned and offended when people decided to reject that.

  1. Marco Arment, creator of the top-selling content blocker, Peace, pulled it from the App Store later the same day. 
  2. Which most people are, at least the ones not writing comments on websites. 
  3. It actually seems like willful ignorance, to be honest. Surely even Dan Primack must use the web and know how terrible advertising technology has rendered much of it. 
  4. Which, by the way, really isn’t your content, doesn’t belong to you at all, and you have no control over 
  5. Cable and cellular providers are obvious examples of cases where we all give money to companies we hate.