Adblocking: Is it controversial to say it's legal?


“Extortionists, internet killers, an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes,” – ad blocking (and those within it) have been described using a whole host of imaginative words over the years.

But, as 2016 draws to a close probably the most controversial one yet is being whispered throughout the corridors of advertisers and publishers across the land – ad blocking is now ‘legal’.

In late November Adblock Plus fended off yet another legal challenge. The plaintiff was Spiegel Online. In total that is now six challenges brought against Adblock Plus and in each case the judge has ruled in favour that adblocking has been 100% legal.

That is quite an impressive record by anyone’s standards, but arguably looking at the bigger picture it reinforces the sea-change which appears to be taking place in attitudes towards ad blocking.

Ad blocking has always split opinion – for a long time we’ve preached the message that it is both a challenge and an opportunity, not a threat. Slowly, very, very slowly, this message has started to resonate.

At the tail-end of 2015 and in the early part of this year we hosted two private meetings – one in New York and one in London. The focus was to engage with publishers, tech companies, content creators, advertisers, non-profits and activists to discuss how we should approach and structure our plans for an independent Acceptable Ads Committee that will take over our Acceptable Ads initiative.

Given the variety of the audience the potential for fireworks was very real – we know we don’t sit highly on many people’s Christmas card list and given that many of those parties were sat around those very tables one could be forgiven for being a tad nervous as to the context of the conversation.

'Not about us'

But critically, this wasn’t about us – this was about creating an initiative to ensure a balanced and independent playing field would ensue for the future of adblocking, and everyone around those tables understood that.

Allegations weren’t thrown, there wasn’t any name-calling (well, not much), there was just an acceptance that ad blocking is a legitimate and recognised tool for enhancing the user’s internet experience, and for it to work effectively we need to work together – something which is especially true when you consider the future of advertising.

Increasingly, US digital ad spend is being used on mobile platforms with experts predicting this to reach an eye-watering $65.87bn by 2019. As both publishers and advertisers begin tapping into mobile, the demand for better quality ads has never been higher.

According to PageFair’s Mobile Adblocking Report, at least 419 million people are blocking ads on smartphones, overtaking that of desktop by almost double – as advertising on mobile increases it’s imperative we learn from the mistakes of the past and fortunately there are those who recognise this.

Last year the IAB launched a set of principles to address ad blocking. Under the acronym L.E.A.N. It stands for Light, Encrypted, Ad choice supported, Non-invasive ads.

The hope is this acts as a guide towards the next phases of advertising technical standards for the global digital advertising supply chain. Fast forward to this summer and again the IAB released a report looking at who blocks ads, why and how to win them back.

The findings in this made for fascinating reading and resonated a lot with the principals we instil as part of our Acceptable Ads programme.

IAB recognition

Interestingly, this recognition from the IAB following these new principals and report reinforces the legitimacy of ad blocking. While we have not always seen eye-to-eye, there is now an acceptance that a disconnect exists between advertisers and users. To correct it, consumers need to be supplied with better quality ads.

If they don’t, they now have a widely available and ultimately legal tool which allows them to demonstrate their annoyance to the detriment of the advertiser. This has always been part of our core principle that we aspire to – we want to work with advertisers to benefit the user, not against them.

While many have looked to discredit the use of ad blockers within the conversation, the truth is its legitimacy can no longer be ignored

While it would be easy to suggest that 2016 saw the penny finally drop and that advertisers, publishers and ad blockers now live in a world of harmony we know that isn’t the case, particularly as this year we saw the rise of the ad-blocking blockades.

Ad-blocking blockades on the surface appeared to be the best line of defence amongst publishers unwilling to listen to the need for less intrusive advertising.

A user would click onto a site and instead of being greeted by content a message would then appear asking them politely to disable their ad blocker, buy a subscription of sorts or get out. Initially driven by the German publishing powerhouse, Axel Springer, this trend has been picked up by others including the likes of City A.M. Wired, and Forbes. While many hailed this as the ultimately antidote towards ad blocking the reality is this is nothing more than a quick fix.

Wired introduced adblocking blockades in February with the hope that it would counter a long-term fall in traffic. Its patterns should have shown a slow decline in the run up to Christmas following the end of key events in September and October which is to be expected, with a rally from mid-January.

Instead there is no evidence that Wired’s blocking policy made any difference. Its global Alexa rank fell by 174 points to 853rd in the period covered, with its bounce rate rising 3 per cent to 69.60%, daily page-views down 4.85% to 1.57 and daily time on site down 1 per cent to 2.53.

For Axel Springer’s prized peach, Blid, while it managed to maintain its position as 14th most popular site in Germany, its global rank fell by 48 to 413 in the year covered. Bild’s bounce rate rose 2 %to 38.9%, with daily page-views little-changed at 3.54, but daily time spent on site per visitor down 6% to 7:07 per cent.

Blockade stats: What they mean

While these numbers are likely concerning for the publications themselves arguably the most worrying thing seen from the use of ad blocking blockades for the wider user community came from Brian Baskin, a technology analyst trying to access the Forbes site after disabling his ad blocker, only to be greeted by a piece of malware.

The fallout from this stirred up quite a frenzy, drawing comparisons to another notable malware attack which hit 128 million users on the video site Dailymotion in 2015.

Malware has the potential to escalate and cause a real nuisance for its users, ultimately deterring both existing and new customers from visiting the site. If not contained, the impact on advertising revenue could be far worse than any uptake in ad-blocking software. While Brian was quick to reassure that Forbes were not at fault and that only a few users had been impacted, it demonstrates that those going to great lengths to fight ad blockers risk hurting the very parties that are most important to them, their users.

Looking to the future it’s clear that obstacles still need to be overcome amongst advertisers, publishers and ad blockers. We are all serving the same audience and want what’s best for the user.

While many have looked to discredit the use of ad blockers within the conversation, the truth is its legitimacy can no longer be ignored. The rise in mobile advertising will bring new challenges in the months and year ahead, and as we stated many, many times we are here to work with those parties to provide a credible solution against the use of intrusive advertising.

As 2016 peels back into 2017, we look forward to the very first sitting of the Acceptable Ads Committee, a new, independent group that will take over the criteria governing acceptable ads. In doing so this will cement our commitment to working with industry practitioners and users for a user-controlled, but also profitable web.

This is what I mean when I say a credible solution, because if you didn’t like Acceptable Ads before, now it’s time to get on board, become a member and improve the program. Of all the signals coming from the industry – from the positive and good intentioned L.E.A.N. to the cynical and apparently masochistic ad blocking blockades – the new and improved Acceptable Ads distinguishes itself with something that all the others can’t; user trust.  

We’ll see what idea or technology is best. Just don’t be surprised if its stumbled upon by a group of “an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes.” 

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21 Dec 2016, 8:25 p.m.

It might be helpful, if not necessary from a standpoint of journalistic integrity to notify the reader somewhere on this page that the writer is a salaried PR manager working for the creator of Adblock Plus.

Adblocking has not been declared "legal" in a blanket sense at all. But I'm sure Mr. Williams would like us all to believe as much.

Advertorial content should be clearly marked.


22 Dec 2016, 4:52 p.m.

Hi Siegfried, thanks for your comment! Just to clarify, Ben's position is signified on the right hand side of the page (alongside a bio and his picture).

This isn't advertorial, it is an op-ed piece that Ben has written for us.

Any more qs, feel free to email: Thanks. :)