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28 September 2015

AdBlock Plus shows ads – for a price

Just as adblockers look set to reshape the online advertising landscape, it tuns out that one leading service is showing some companies' ads for a fee. 

By Barbara Speed

This is a tense time for the advertising industry. First, in what could be a catastrophe for mobile advertising, the latest iPhone’s browser lets customers block ads using apps easily downloadable from the app store. Then, the creator of Peace, one such app (which raced to the top of the app store charts when the iPhone 6S was released) abruptly pulled it from the store days after its release, saying adblockers “benefit a ton of people” but also “hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit”. 

Now, even more confusingly, AdBlock Plus, a leading adblocker (and no relation to rival Adblock), has, according to the Wall Street Journal, begun displaying some ads as part of its browsing experience. The Journal reports:

“Eyeo GmbH, the company behind popular desktop ad-blocking tool AdbBock Plus, now accepts payment from around 70 companies in exchange for letting their ads through its filter. 

Eyeo stipulates that they must comply with its ‘acceptable ads’ policy, meaning their ads aren’t too disruptive or intrusive to users. In total, ads from some 700 companies meet the acceptable ads policy, an Eyeo spokesman said.”

Eyeo GmbH has also created partnerships with other adblockers, so ads that slip through its filters would appear for other adblocking customers too. 

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In a way, this revelation isn’t that surprising. Most adblocker creators aren’t avowedly anti-ad – they’re just angry at the deluge of large, data-eating and autoplay ads that apear on many webpages. An AdBlock Plus spokesperson said earlier this year that the company aims to “work with publishers, advertisers and content creators to encourage non-intrusive ads, discover new ways to make ads better and press forward to a more sustainable internet ecosystem”.

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Marco Arment, creator of Peace, had a similar justification when he initially launched the app:

“The ‘implied contract’ theory that we’ve agreed to view ads in exchange for free content is void because we can’t review the terms first — as soon as we follow a link, our browsers load, execute, transfer, and track everything embedded by the publisher. 

Our data, battery life, time, and privacy are taken by a blank check with no recourse.”

In one way, this outlook is positive, in that it allows for a future in which companies can still advertise, and digital publishers can still earn a living, if the ads in questio are deemed “acceptable” by adblocking companies. But what’s troubling is the elevated role these adblockers now occupy as the arbiters of acceptability. Despite their open source, pro-consumer beginnings, they’re now in a position where they can hold entire industries hostage, dictate what ads look like, and even decide which ads consumers do or do not see. I’m all in favour of better ads, but this seems an odd way to go about getting them.