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Is using an ad blocker theft?

by Greg Krehbiel on 15 March 2017

A man I respect a great deal recently suggested that I tell my friends that when they use an ad blocker they are stealing food out of my childrens’ mouths. (My kids buy their own food most of the time these days, but you get the point.)

There are a lot of expenses involved in running a professional website, and there are a lot of different strategies companies use to deal with those costs. Some companies view their website as a cost of doing business and don’t try to make money from it, but most see it as a revenue source of one kind or another. One of the more common means of getting revenue from a website is to run ads on it.

The implied bargain — from the website owner’s perspective — is that the website provides useful content and the visitors put up with the ads, which are the owner’s means of compensation.

But is that really the implied bargain?

When I watch TV, I often mute the commercials. That’s somewhat analogous to an ad blocker, right?

The company that produces the TV show knows I can do this. Remotes have a mute button, after all. And I can change the channel easily enough.

There’s nothing forcing me to watch the commercials on TV (or listen to them on the radio). The producers are betting on the fact that enough people will watch the commercials to make the advertisers happy and keep the ad revenue rolling in. If that changes — if lots of people start ignoring commercials — the company will have to come up with another way to make money on their TV show.

That’s the way I see ad blockers. They’re like the mute button or the “change channel” button. They’re just a fact of web technology.

If enough people use ad blockers, websites will have to come up with other ways to monetize traffic. Fortunately, there are lots of other options that don’t rely on advertisements.

2017-03-15  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 6

  1. William
    15 March 2017 @ 5:26 pm

    Technically, your friend has a point. If enough people aren’t responding, that impacts his ability to generate revenue. Yet, you’ve rightfully pointed out, that’s not the obligation of the consumer. The consumer isn’t even obliged to use a particular resource let alone responsible for viewing its ads/commercials. The service provider takes on that responsibility and risk and needs to find ways to inspire users to “want” to partake in the ads (good luck with that). To the degree they are skillful in doing so is the degree they will be successful in putting food in their children’s mouths. So no, ad blockers are not theft, IMO.

  2. Craig
    15 March 2017 @ 5:28 pm

    I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with ads – I knew even as a kid that they made the network television model work, and I loved watching the good ones. Catchy songs, toys that I wanted (“Hey Mom! I want that!”), the common bond. But with cable, the reason we initially paid subscription costs was to avoid commercials. Then commercials infiltrated their way in. Using your friend’s logic, does that mean that they were and are stealing my money?

    There’s nothing in the model of the Internet that makes its existence dependent on ads. Some on-line companies like Facebook and Yahoo have determined that they need to sell ads to cash in on their user base (turn clicks to cash as they say), but what about for websites I pay for? I pay for the NYT and WSJ but still have to suffer through ads. And then some sites just bombard you with ads to the point that the site is unusable.

    All this to say that I agree with you.

  3. Ken Crawford
    15 March 2017 @ 7:02 pm

    There’s nothing wrong with an ad-blocker, particularly since sites can make it so we can’t see the content if we use one (thus giving them a mechanism to prevent the “stealing” if they really wanted to). Consumers and businesses are constantly playing a delicate game of cat and mouse. They try to throw as much manipulative stuff at us as they can without scaring us off and we decide how much of it we’re willing to tolerate before we stop coming. When that’s not enough revenue to make ends meet, then they either find another way to get revenue or they go out of business for one of two reasons:

    1. They weren’t smart enough to figure out a different way to get revenue
    2. Their product wasn’t good enough to generate (by any means) the revenue needed.

    But if the product is needed a natural balance will develop with the smart companies figuring out how to get the needed revenue in a way that is most tolerable to the customer, whether that’s with advertising or not.

  4. Robin R.
    16 March 2017 @ 12:09 am

    I don’t see how it was a problem in the first place.

  5. sm
    16 March 2017 @ 1:18 am

    As Ken said, if they want to block me, they can. Forbes.com detects ad-blockers. Very little content am I willing to pay for or even tolerate ads (flash videos) slowing down my machine. I really get upset when I got my internet provider’s website and they have ads on it. In fact it infuriates me. I have absolutely zero choice in my provider in my neighborhood, otherwise I would quit. Can’t they see it is unprofessional? And that it is part of doing business? Done stupid bean counter thinks it is a good idea? If it was a banking site, I would move my account immediately thinking the bank doesn’t know how to manage money if they have to stoop to this to raise funds.

  6. pentamom
    20 March 2017 @ 10:20 am

    What Craig and sm said. They can find a different model, they can force me to turn off my ad blocker, or they can make their content so good or their advertising so tolerable that it doesn’t bother me. Facebook is an example of the last — I use it despite the fact that it now defeats all ad blocking, because I perceive its benefits as being worthwhile anyway, and the advertising doesn’t really detract from my overall experience that much.