I Like To Block It Block It

And lo, on the day of the ninth release, the Lord Cook did cry ‘havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of flamewars, and permitted ad blockers in iOS; and there was much rejoicing, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth, because freaking everyone had a strong opinion on the subject. Who would have thought that the chattering classes had so much passion in them?

Fortune‘s Dan Primack was so outraged he informed Apple: “I’m seriously thinking of robbing your store at the local mall.” Marco Ament introduced his ad blocker Peace with the announcement: “Web advertising and behavioral tracking are out of control. They’re unacceptably creepy, bloated, annoying, and insecure, and they’re getting worse at an alarming pace.” Two days later withdrew it, reporting that ad blockers “also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”

Anil Dash was, bizarrely, opposed to ad blockers because sites would actually have to do some work in order to change their current exploitative ad practices, and we can’t have that:

Techmeme’s Gabe Rivera was his usual trenchant, sardonic self:

The brilliantly mysterious / mysteriously brilliant Startup L. Jackson, as usual, saw further ahead than most, predicting a move to harder-to-block server-side ad networks that are even worse for privacy:

Publishers immediately started working on ad blocker blockers:

…and me? Well, I’m sorry to say,

Not this one, obviously! TechCrunch is different. (Seriously.) But also–

Meanwhile, some ad “blockers” are taking money to let ads through–


Why such an outcry? Why so much heat and passion and fury?

Well — ads matter to people. A lot. Some want them better targeted, so they’re more relevant; some are horrified at the notion of their privacy being ransacked so that advertisers can better learn the emotional buttons that might make them spend money more irrationally; but nobody doesn’t care. And, let’s face it, ads at their worse are one of the most insidiously awful things about modern capitalism.

It’s true that many seem not to mind fighting their way through the gruelling obstacle course of popups, interstitials, autoplay videos, etc. that infest the modern mobile web. “Wake me up when ad-blockers are installed by default,” says MG Siegler, dismissing the whole furore as a tempest in a teapot (for now.) Nilay Patel, Josh Elman, and Jason Calacanis view the whole issue as collateral damage in the ongoing war between the Stacks–Apple vs Google, in this case–rather than driven by a change in the relationship between publishers and users.

Others see this as a sea change: “People hate ads, they ruin the experience. That’s why they download ad-blockers […] This is the new reality. If we lose a bunch of sites, so be it,” argues Bob Lefsetz. Seth Godin predicts: “At some point, the advertiser will wake up and choose to do business in a new way, and my guess is that the media that we all rely on will change in response.” Rob Leathern warns, in Do Mobile Websites Deserve To Die?: “The future for advertising in mobile websites is very much up for debate, period.”

Looking a little further out, VCs Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures and Antonio Rodriguez of Matrix Partners suggest, interestingly, that the move to ad blocking could be a signpost on the road to the redecentralization of the web, and a return of power to the user. If nothing else, it certainly seems to signify a hunger for that.

But the last and most telling take, as usual, comes from the incomparable Maciej Ceglowski, in his typically superb, bleakly savage talk “What Happens Next Will Amaze You,” which you should rush out and read right now. Some highlights:

State surveillance is driven by fear. And corporate surveillance is driven by money. […] There’s nothing about advertising that is inherently privacy-destroying. It used to be a fairly innocuous business model. The phenomenon whereby ads are tied to the complete invasion of privacy is a recent one. […] The winners in this game are the ones running the casino: big advertising networks, surveillance companies, and the whole brand-new industry known as “adtech”. The losers are small publishers and small advertisers. […] But the biggest losers are you and me. […] I don’t believe there’s a technology bubble, but there is absolutely an advertising bubble. When it bursts, companies are going to be more desperate and will unload all the personal data they have on us to absolutely any willing buyer. And then we’ll see if all these dire warnings about the dangers of surveillance were right. […] As ad blocking becomes widespread, we’ll see these tensions get worse, and we’ll also see more serious technical countermeasures. […] Ad blockers help us safeguard an important principle—that the browser is fundamentally our user agent. It’s supposed to be on our side. It sticks up for us. We get to control its behavior. No amount of moralizing about our duty to view unwanted advertisements can change that.

He goes on propose solutions to these larger problems (next to which the issue of which publishers will survive the change to more acceptable ads is laughably trivial) and rant about how “Everywhere I look there is this failure to capture the benefits of technological change.” I don’t agree with everything he says, or his proposed solutions — but even the parts I/you may bitterly disagree with are a valuable and a refreshing change from the Silicon Valley echo chamber. Again, read the whole thing —

–which in turn reminds me of this quote (quasi-mis-)attributed to Banksy:

People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you. […] Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. […] Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. […] They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.

I can hear the publishers and advertisers already: But our web site isn’t a public space! We have an implicit contract with users!

Nuh-uh. True, a publisher’s web site isn’t a public space. It’s a private space; the user’s private space. The user’s browser, rendering data transferred to the user’s computer, which the user owns and controls (or certainly should). After you pipe data to a person’s computer you can no longer claim any moral right to how it is filtered, parsed, packaged, or displayed. It is their computer, their bit stream to do with as they will, with their software. If you don’t like that basic fact — that ethical truism — then I have a very simple suggestion: don’t respond to their HTTP requests.

Which is why, as Parker Higgins of the EFF says:

So don’t talk to me about any kind of “implicit contract” for advertising. And if you feed toxic waste to your users, don’t be surprised or outraged when they spit it out.

But you know what? If the ads publishers served weren’t awful, intrusive, deceptive if not fraudulent toxic waste, the overwhelming majority of people would be completely happy to surf without ad blockers, accepting the occasional ad as a reasonable compromise. If Ceglowski is right, if we are in an advertising bubble that will take down swathes of publishers and ad networks when it bursts — and that seems at least plausible — then they will have no one to blame for their collective demise but their own shortsightedness and greed.