AdBlock Plus: The Napster of Internet Advertising

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I read in The Guardian this morning about AdBlock Plus‘ plans to whitelist sites that show what they term “acceptable ads” – basically ads that adhere to guidelines developed by Eyeo, the company behind ABP – and it struck me that AdBlock Plus is (and has been for some time) playing a similar role as Napster and other file sharing systems did for the music industry and music consumers (ie. listeners).

While it is generally acknowledged that producing and recording music, as well as marketing and distributing it can take a lot of effort and resources (financial and otherwise), your average music lover wasn’t able to say no to the proverbial free lunch of instant downloads.  And let’s face it, until recently, there weren’t many better alternatives for music in the digital age (at least until iTunes made it simpler most users to access digital music).  File sharing was easy, you could access just about anything you want, download most things incredibly quickly and it was free.  Fans would begrudgingly admit that someone has to pay for the music otherwise it won’t be able to get made, but that it could be left to someone else (much like parents of children who refuse to vaccinate on the grounds that all the other kids will be vaccinated so they don’t need to… ok, take it easy Tristan, one rant at a time).

And of file sharing is still around and is easier than ever, but the difference is now there’s an even easier way.  You can still access just about everything, you don’t worry about downloads (but can if you want) and it’s free (when ad supported) otherwise there’s a subscription fee.  Enter Spotify et al.

Much information (and misinformation) has been reported about Spotify and royalties lately, particularly the article about a Daft Punk track that incorrectly estimated their royalties from Spotify at $9,000 when in fact it was 100 times that amount (dollars and cents can be confusing).  Still, this is one of the largest grossing tracks on the system, and for the rest of us, it’s fair to say that under the subscription model, revenue from public consumption of recorded music is way down compared to the brick and mortar days.

This is exactly what web advertisers are facing now.  They have a revenue system that is supported by advertising (which is certainly nothing new – look at newspapers, radio, TV, you name it – the only media not backed by advertising is subscription models like cable TV) which is now being threatened by a technology that allows users to bypass it with a simple piece of software – AdBlock Plus (although AdBlock Plus is just one of several products, much like after Napster came Kazaa, Limewire, Bit Torrent you name it). AdBlock plus is simple, but incredibly effective.  It is a browser plugin that refers to a blacklist of sites that host advertising, and displays whitespace or no content in their place, creating a clutter free web experience that is a delight to behold.  I mean who wouldn’t want that? This like Napster to for internet advertising – providing users a really easy way to bypass your existing revenue stream and for their own convenience.

Although now AdBlock Plus is changing the game. They’re trying to exert pressure on site owners to tone down the type of advertising they use, so that if it’s less intrusive it will be allowed to be shown.  They negotiate this whitelisting of websites individually with site owners for a fee that was reported in The Guardian as the equivalent of 30% of ad revenue!  AdBlock Plus claim on their website that 75% of their users want to support sites by allowing advertising that is not annoying, but even if that’s true, taking 30% of the revenue is reminiscent of the mob taking protection money.  Imagine if Napster had the gall to turn around to labels and say “well, 40% of your music fans are downloading things illegally through us, so give us a chunk of your revenue and we’ll let you charge them again”.

However, it won’t really work, since there is already more than one ad blocking service, so there’s no incentive to pay Eyeo to unblock your site. AdBlock Plus will be tainted as profiting off the advertising they swore to protect you from, meanwhile there’ll be an exodus from ABP and an uptake of other services that really do block all the ads. Then the sites are back to where they started, and then what? They have to pay other ad blockers to be whitelisted?

And this is where I made the comparison to Spotify to myself.  You can’t block all the ad blockers, any more than you can  shut down all the file sharing services.  “The internet changed all that,” as people like to say.  But it really has.  The accepted solutions in the music industry range from “fuck Spotify, buy my music” to “give your music away and make your income from touring/merch/licensing”.  Common to all of these is the fact that actual sales are down and subscription services pay a pittance in comparison.  You don’t have to pay $30 for an album on a piece of plastic because you like a song. You can pay $1, or stream it for zilch.  These days you’re not paying for the delivery mechanism, you’re paying for the convenience.  With online ads, you don’t have to watch them if you don’t want. If you do want to support sites, maybe there should be subscription/donation methods.

Perhaps online content providers (otherwise known as websites) need to get with the times and accept that internet advertising isn’t the cash cow that they’d hoped it would be and tighten their belts like the music folks.  Perhaps it’s time for a subscription service for internet advertising.  Pay $10 per month and get no ads on the internet ever.  Web sites would get paid per page view, just like labels get paid per stream.  It wouldn’t be much compared to the old ad rates, but it’s better than a kick in the teeth.  It’s probably a a bit premature, since with the majority of web users not using an ad blocker, there’s still quite a lot of users viewing ads on a regular basis, but this will probably change.

The analogy with file sharing is that ad blocking users are like people using file sharing. They’re not providing revenue to the content creators, so we bring them back in to the fold with a legitimate system that still brings some revenue in (although much less).  Maybe AdBlock Plus want to be net ads’ Spotify, but their model is backwards – they’re charging the content creators for the right to sell their product (advertising) rather than charging users a subscription to use it.

Some forwarding thinking tech tyrants have foreseen this issue and created ecosystems that are closed, such as iOS where cannot install software without approval from Apple.  That combined with proprietary apps like Facebook mean that there isn’t really an opportunity to get in and block ads (although there are some implementations using a proxy webserver and Mobile Safari).  Google Play has recently removed AdBlock Plus from it’s Android store citing interfering with 3rd party applications as the reason (hello AdWords!)

Site owners and software vendors will try to control the ad delivery mechanism as much as they can, but they can’t hold out forever. It’s way too early to tell what the future will look like, but I don’t want to have to pay each publisher/site a subscription fee to go ad free any more than I want to subscribe to each artist/label I take a fancy in just to stay up to date.  Spotify got their user base because there was a free system (ad-supported) and there’s a paid, ad-free system.  Publishers are struggling with their current individual subscription models – the difficulty is getting people to subscribe, when they can just go elsewhere.

I love AdBlock Plus (and I love Spotify), it’s a great experience for the user and it’s hard to say no to. I appreciate that site owners need to make money to stay alive but I don’t want to hear any more bleeding heart stories about ad blockers hurting web their business, while we’ve been languishing over the same issues for over a decade in the music industry!  As Myra said to me the other day, “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset”.

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On October 15, 2013
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