The Ethics of Adblocking

I hate ads. Radio ads. TV ads. Billboard ads. Internet ads. Advertisements bother me, especially when I catch myself singing McDonald’s’ stupid “da-da-da-da-da” jingle.

Back when my wife and I (way before we were even engaged) first started exploring basic website design (HTML… not even with CSS), we used to use money-cost-free hosting sites. These sites were usually short on space (5 MB or 20 MB) and completely lacking in reliability (host here today, gone tomorrow). The difference between a “free” and a not “free” host? Banner ads. The “free” host would have a banner ad (usually flashing), and the not “free” host would allow you to make your website look the way you wanted it to.

We soon realized it was worth shelling out to a real web host to get real web space that wouldn’t have a flashing banner ad on it. So now we use ICDSoft to host our websites. It isn’t really that expensive when compared to other things we shell out for (DirectTV, cell phone calls, groceries, bus passes, etc.), and it makes sense that we would pay for it.

Do I want to pay for every site I visit? Of course not. But here’s the thing—most sites want you to visit. They’re not going to charge you to visit the site, because creating any kind of deterent to you visiting the site is contrary to the site’s goals (unless it’s someone’s relatively private blog that she wants only friends and family to see).

Ads are like bonus revenue. “Hey, they happen to be visiting our site anyway. We might as well make some money off of it.” And, really, websites (unlike magazines, TV shows, and movies) are pretty cheap to host. If you’re really that hard up on cash and have something valuable to offer the web-viewing public, how about just putting a nice (and inoffensive-looking) little donation button at the bottom of your page? I’ve donated to sites that are worthwhile.

I’ll be honest. There are a couple of times when Psychocats almost went over its bandwidth limit because of the screenshot tutorials for Ubuntu that I host there. I had a few options:

  1. Ask for donations.
  2. Put up ads
  3. Pay the extra money for the exceeded bandwidth
  4. Make the tutorials screenshot-less
  5. Host the images elsewhere

In the grand scheme of things, if people are going to donate money to something Ubuntu-related, I’d rather they donate to the forums or directly to the Ubuntu project. Even though I don’t mind paying for some basic hosting, I don’t want to pay the penalty for exceeding the allocated bandwidth. This is coming out of my own pocket, after all. The whole point of the tutorials is to have screenshots (for most of them, anyway), so I couldn’t get rid of the images. So I ended up hosting the images at ImageShack, which is, of course, ad-funded (partially, at least).

So why is ImageShack okay in my book? For the same reason that Google is okay in my book. ImageShack and Google are not obnoxious about their ads. Google’s ads are text-only and off to the side. ImageShack has ads only if you click on the thumbnail to get a bigger image, and even then the ads are below the image.

That’s what it really boils down to, though. If you’re going to use ads, you need the right balance of content (to draw them in) to advertisements (to keep them away or adblocking). The only reason AdBlock was developed in the first place was the web deteriorating to the point of being nigh-unusable. Flashing banner ads were everywhere. They were covering (on top of) the actual text of news stories. Pop-up ads were popping up, popping under. You expect to see ads in a magazine, but rarely do they have pop-up ads that don’t allow you to read actual magazine articles.

So, no, as both a webmaster and viewer, I do not find anything unethical about blocking advertisements. If your site is worth visiting, charge people actual money, put in unobtrusive ads, or ask for donations… or just suck it up and pay for it yourself.

Further Reading:
AdBlock revisited
Is Ad Blocking Ethical?
Why Adblock is bad for the “free” Internet

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19 Comments

  1. Solid thoughts there PCat, I’d agree with that synopsis – as a web designer using FF AdBlocker I see both sides of this every day.

    Elegant web design and paying the bills needn’t conflict – good design depends on it.

  2. As a webmaster, I always leave my ads out of the way. I understand the logic behind ad blocking, but I like doing it with a blacklist approach (IE ads are visible by default, but can’t be blocked).

    The only thing I block by default is Flash, because the technology behind those ads is being abused. I only allow flash on very few sites, most of them video related.

  3. I hear you. Flash ads are annoying, even though both my wife (partially) and my brother earn a living by making Flash ads…

  4. I agree that Flash ads are annoying and stupid, but I disagree about your theory that people who cannot afford it should ask for donations. Somehow I don’t think donations work at all. I put a “subscribed” member option in Literaryforums.org a year ago and till date, not a single user has opted for it.

    You are an exception, but the majority of web users wouldn’t pay for content.

    I think that you’re wrong in saying that web hosting is cheap. For many of us who live in different countries, getting a good, reliable host is a nightmarish prospect. People in the US tend to take it for granted that you can always get a host. For a lot of us without Credit Cards, it’s hard to pay for a host, even if we can afford to.

    I agree that Flash ads aren’t the best solution, but I can sympathize with people who feel the need to offset the costs of hosting their own domain.

  5. Good points, Hari.

    I can be a little self-centered at times in my analysis. Definitely for a certain demographic, my observations hold true, but thanks for offering another perspective.

  6. Of course, google’s blogspot and wordpress.com and a dozen other free blogging services have helped people get decent hosting for free. Since most people just want a blog, it’s not a problem.

    What *really* bothers me is people who insert their own ads when they host in free services, like blogspot.

    And the people who make all the money on ads are neither the guy who paid for the ad, nor the one who hosts it but the intermediate party who provides the services. (unless of course you host your own ad server as well)

  7. I disagree with you Hari, Even those people who get free hosting in blogspot are spending time and effort on their content and nothing is more valuable than time.
    However I hate the blogs and websites which display Flash or Java Ads. Pop Ads are the worst of all which can make your internet experience hell. I do not mind in text advertising and Google AdSense ads as long they do not hinder the user’s experience. But placing those ads in middle of the page is quite irritating.

  8. Well, I have a free webpage at Google Pages (http://pages.google.com/) and its most valuable feature is not to have ads. Yes, it has lots of problems and we complain a lot in the forums, but we have found some hacks to improve it (and Google likes them!!)…

    An interesting new concept, isn’t it?

  9. I think you’ve got a pretty good perspective on it with this article. I don’t want to take food out of anyone’s mouth, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone wanting to make money off of their websites. But I do have Flashblock installed in Firefox, because holy hell, is that technology abused for ads. And I have Adblock installed, but by default I let ads through. The only ones I block are blinky ads and the like that try to rape my poor eyes when I just want to be viewing a site. And NoScript ensures that I never see a pop-up/under ad, even ones that get around Firefox’s built-in pop-up blocker. And this make the web a much happier place for me.

  10. Why don’t you host your images on Photobucket, they are free and ad-less. I use them for my images now.

  11. My bad, I haven’t checked back with photobucket in like 3 or 4 months, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t have ads back then.

  12. Finally! Somebody I can fully agree with. I’ve been waiting for somebody to realize that nobody would use Adblock Plus if Internet ads were unobtrusive. If everyone used, for example, one or two Google AdSense (text-banner-thing) ads per page, nobody would download AdBlock Plus (except for the odd 56k user dead-set on maximizing performance). Websites like MySpace know that their endless hordes of users will continue to visit their site, regardless of the number of Flash-based bandwidth-intensive ads that are displayed on the front page; people these days practically LIVE on MySpace. Heck, looking at it right now, they could pile even MORE ads on, and people would still use it. One of the chief reasons I switched from MySpace (which I never liked to begin with) to Facebook was the relative lack of advertising.

    My mouse is hovering over the “Uninstall” button on Adblock Plus, waiting for web developers to tone down their advertising to acceptable levels. Until then, they’ll just have to learn their lesson the hard way.

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