Pirates Are Repenting, But Don't Expect Ad Blockers To Follow Suit

Are consumers generally good people who are willing to pay their way online, or are they freeloaders who are only too happy to duck their obligation to content providers? It's a particularly relevant question for the media, because, with one in seven -- and rising -- of Internet users blocking ads, the ad-funded content sector has a crisis unfolding. 

There's a glimmer of light in the latest piracy figures from the Intellectual Property Office that conducts research through Kantar Media. It has been monitoring content piracy for the past five years to measure whether consumers are changing their habits from free illegal sharing to legal sites, such as Netflix and Spotify. Its latest report shows that piracy has dropped to its lowest point in the research study's five-year history, with 15% of consumers admitting to sharing content illegally compared to 18% last year. In fact, illegal sharing of music, movies and tv shows are each down to around 7% to 8% of internet users. The figure for 15% of Internet users applies to "any" type of content, and so it would seem fair to say that when you drill down, illegal sharing within the big genres is down as low as one in fifteen Internet users. 

I remember all the discussions around illegal sharing, and there was genuine optimism that legal services would offer customers a means to come back into the fold and pay a subscription for access to material they had previously downloaded from dodgy pirate sites. And you know what? It seems to have been optimism well-placed. 

So ad blocking -- at 15% to 20%, depending on whom you're listening to -- is a problem at least twice the size as illegal sharing of movies, music and tv shows. Could it also be addressed by relying on people to be reasonable and see the errors of their ways if the reason for their blocking was tackled? Well, nobody can say for sure, and there are doubtless people who block ads who have no intention of playing the proverbial game and accepting advertising as the price of free content.

However, the entertainment industry took away the biggest obstacle to paying for content, or at least it was done for them by the likes of Spotify and Netflix, and now only around one in fifteen Internet users in the UK are cheating the system. Could the same happen in publishing and help reasonable people realise they're hurting content providers?

Publishers know what consumers quite rightly dislike about digital advertising. The videos that blare out sound in the background on auto play, the pop-ups that cover content, pop-ups with obscured "X" close buttons and generally too many ads getting in the way too much. The industry has been very clear in guidelines offered to publishers on what best practice looks like and so there is hope that things will improve and those considering blocking ads will be put off.

But here's the rub. Consumers want content, not the ads. That's why Netflix and Spotify have been so successful. They sell content. The ads are something nobody truly cares for, and so to make online users see ads as something worth putting up with in return for content, that content has to be withheld. It's the only way.

The stable door is wide open already and the proverbial horse has bolted. Better practice may win over those who have yet to make the leap into ad blocking. For those who have, the only way back is for publishers to install software that spots their behaviour and withholds content.

How else are they going to know your ads are more responsible if they're blocking them anyway? How else are they going to be made to decide if they want content enough to accept ads in return? It may sound harsh, but it's the only way, isn't it?

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