Several weeks ago, I wrote about a company that was selling pop-up blocker software via pop-ups. I got quite a bit of email feedback on the issue and a lot of it was pretty heated. Ready for Round 2?
My point in the previous article was to discuss the company's choice of marketing tactics, not specifically the issue of ad blockers. Since we've all had a couple of weeks to settle down from that engagement, I figured I'd go ahead and get my full opinion of ad-blockers out on the table. I'll be wearing my Kevlar for the next week, so flame away.
From a legal perspective, it seems to me that this issue is pretty straightforward (I hear all the lawyers in the crowd laughing derisively at the thought that a legal issue can be straightforward). By my thinking, producing software that is solely intended to alter the appearance of copyrighted material (whatever the medium) is wrong.
In the same way that Napster got shut down for facilitating the illegal transfer of copyrighted material, I would imagine that the producer of ad blocking software could find themselves in court explaining to a judge why their product doesn't violate copyright laws. US Copyright law allows for the recovery of actual damages (i.e. lost advertising revenue) plus any profits the infringing party may have gained through the action in question. That can add up to a pretty serious liability.
Of course, the other guilty party is the consumer who chooses to install these tools in an effort to "take control" of their Internet experience. We have to remember that the Internet developed as a "commercial-free" communications format. People got used to the idea that the Internet was free for all and was essentially one big public service.
There's no question that people are also getting sick of the clutter of advertising they see online. Ad blocking software appeals to both the "Free Net" mentality and the users' desire for less clutter on their computer screens.
But real companies are now spending real money online, and the user experience has naturally become more commercial. It's the evolution of a new medium before our very eyes. Cool, huh?
And since money makes the world go around, the people producing all the good, original content online expect to make a buck doing it. We could debate whether sites should rely on advertising revenues alone to support the production of original content until we're blue in the face. My own opinion is that original content supported by advertising is a workable model in other media, and it should be workable online. Especially since the economic realities of online publishing and distribution are much friendlier than the broadcast mediums. I'm certainly not saying EVERY content site can or should survive on advertising revenue alone, but I do think it's possible.
If the users block the ads that are supposed to support the production of the content.... what happens? Quite simply, the content goes away. Or, in the case of smart online publishers, the content goes away for the users trying to block the ads.
No matter how clever ad blocking software gets, there is an active community of independent web publishers who are countering the threat with ad block detectors. I've already seen sites that detect the presence of such ad-killers. When ad blockers are detected, these sites simply deny access to their content. They usually include a forcefully worded message describing how the site publisher feels about the user's attempted theft of content.
Now imagine the response of the larger online publishers. What if an AOL, Yahoo!, or Microsoft decided to get involved in combating these tools? If, and this is a big if, ad blocking were ever to get to the point where it was a real threat to a major online player's revenue, I think we'd see quick action. The companies developing and marketing ad blocking software would be at the mercy of large, sophisticated legal and technical teams. Their products would be rendered useless and their banking account would be left empty.
I look forward to that day.