October 2, 2015
This morning, I was greeted with an announcement from the Adblock Chrome Extension stating that it had been sold to a new owner and that they were now participating in Adblock Plus’s Acceptable Ad Program.
In the message, there is a link to disable the program, although I have verified on a different machine that if you do not click that link, users will get automatically opted into the acceptable ad program with this update.
What Is Adblock’s Acceptable Ad Policy?
For those that are not familiar with it, Ad Block Plus started a program several years ago with a stated goal of promoting sites that have non-obtrusive ads by disabling Adblock on these sites. The program allows a website’s advertisements to bypass Adblock’s filters, provided it has been deemed that the ads they show are not terribly intrusive.
In some cases, although likely not all, companies are paying to be put on this list and there are some big names that are paying to bypass the filters, like Google and Microsoft.
Since money is changing hands and the list has grown from a relatively short one to one that is now over 7,000 lines long, it has drawn a lot of criticism and concern over the years. Some feel that it is contrary to the spirit of the plugin and are concerned with the implications of third-party tracking/ad networks. However, some laud it as a necessary way of encouraging ‘good’ sites and rewarding content producers.
Recently, Ad Block Plus announced that an independent board would now review the sites to provide some transparency and likely alleviate some of the criticism that this program is just a money grab that extorts users/site owners.
Plugin Sold, Updated, and Users Opted In
In the announcement from the developer of the Chrome Adblock Plugin(different from Adblock Plus) it was stated that in part due to the change to an independent review board, he was fully on-board with The Acceptable Ad Policy and was selling the plugin.
The update opts-in existing users to the program, which bypasses filters of the plugin.
The vagueness of the message, along with the opting in of this setting and no mention of who the buyer is is concerning and does not instill trust that this is a good faith transition.
Now, Adblock Plus will be transferring custodianship of Acceptable Ads to an impartial group of experts. I love this idea — in fact, it was my wife Katie’s suggestion! Due to this change, I’m happy for AdBlock to join the program. As a result, I am selling my company, and the buyer is turning on Acceptable Ads.
No one can say what they would do when offered the right amount of money for their project.
The message shown after you install his plugin has been a donation request for years, which has a picture of him and his wife and states that he(they?) quit their job to work on the plugin. As far as I know that was the only monetization and donations can be fickle, so if that really is his only job he may feel it isn’t worth his time or effort, he could be burnt out, or perhaps he just wants to move on to something else. This is, of course, conjecture, but the point is, I can see many reasons why an attractive offer would be jumped upon and can not say what I would do if I were in his shoes.
It is not clear who the new owner is yet, although it has been announced that Adblock Plus’s parent company is paying ad-blocking plugins to take part in this program, so this appears to be a way of monetizing the popular chrome plugin. For instance, Crystal(one of the first ad-blockers for IOS9) is now accepting payments to default opt-in their users to the acceptable ad program.
The Fragility of Trusting Plugins
This highlights the fragility of trusting plugins and in a big way.
It only takes a bit of money to purchase an incredibly large user-base, per their plugin page ‘over 40 million users,’ and make a significant change that is likely contrary to the reasons the end-user installed the plugin, while almost certainly offering a monetary benefit to the new owners…it wouldn’t of been bought unless someone had plans of how to monetize it.
This is something that has played out before and is often worse, as there are documented instances of malware or adware vendors buying a popular plugin and subverting it.
It is a difficult issue to address…how do you ensure that a plugin you trust isn’t going to be sell out to someone who will turn the plugin sides., Both Chrome and Firefox do take some action to keep this from occurring, but it is often caught after the fact and after damage has been done.
Thoughts on Acceptable Ads
As a content creator and someone who makes money off advertisements(there may even be some on this page that WordPress.com is making money off of,) I fully understand and support the end user blocking ads. In fact I encourage it and install ad blockers when fixing people’s computers to help protect them. Third-party ads can be dangerous and are a leading cause of malware infections.
Even without clicking on the ad, the network is still accumulating a ton of data that they can use/sell about your browsing habits. Networks that are very well moderated, like Googles, can show bad ads or link to sites that are dangerous. Until relatively recently, doing a search for popular open source software like VLC Media Player or Firefox would yield results on Google and Bing for third-party bundles that were not safe to install. Smaller networks are even worse and often show dangerous ads that install PC Optimizers and Tune Up Programs that hijack computers…or adware browser bars that track and inject ads while browsing.
So, I feel that browsing is much safer place without ads and getting your site whitelisted because you paid an adblocking company some money is not a good alternative.
Not to mention, there is a huge performance boost when you aren’t loading 20 random trackers and ad networks.
What About Content Creators
Whenever this is brought up, the argument is inevitably that sites/content creators are not being paid for their work. By using an advertisement blocker you are stealing from them and depriving them of a way to monetize their work. Instead, you should just not visit their site if you don’t want to be tracked/advertised to.
And this isn’t exactly wrong. It isn’t free to host a website and putting your site behind a paywall probably doesn’t work out well for people. I haven’t researched the numbers, but I would be pleasantly surprised if the New York Times or Washington post paywall is(was?) a big money maker for them. I would imagine most people just bypass it or ignore links to their site.
Some have suggested an easy way of making micro payments for accessing sites or simply ads that are targeted to the site content(rather than re-marketing) and self hosted might be a good alternative. I think it is inevitable that ad-networks will eventually evolve to bypass third-party network blocking. They are typically a leader in this sort of development.
So, this is a tricky problem and I can certainly see both sides to the issue. However, opening yourself to tracking/malware, aggressive marketing, and obtrusive adverts really shouldn’t be the solution.