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Blocking online ads and the ethics around doing so has been a topic of debate ever since Apple opened up the ability to third-party developers with the latest release of its mobile operating system in September.
But really, there’s no debate. Ad blockers in their myriad forms are a welcome, necessary protection against the latest scourge to hit the internet: unscrupulous websites that have become more annoying and detrimental to visitors than they are useful.
The arrival of iOS9 heralded, as The Wall Street Journal called it, “a cottage industry” of new blocking capabilities. Apps such as Crystal, 1Blocker and Peace quickly became popular, making money for their developers.
Their quick success indicates that many users are fed up with the constant barrage of ads they’re subjected to on their phones and tablets.
But ads are the essential lifeblood of many websites, hence the debate. If everyone blocks the ads that news organizations depend on for revenue, how are those companies supposed to make the money they need to continue their coverage?
Even one ad blocker developer – Peace creator and Tumblr co-founder Marco Arment – reversed course because his success didn’t “feel good.” Arment said the blockers were hurting a lot of people who perhaps didn’t deserve it because the blockers lump in small websites that display only a few ads with the worst offenders.
The New York Times ironically delivered a knock-out blow in the argument earlier this month by testing the 50 most popular news websites with and without ad blockers running. The results: not only did blocking ads cause websites to load much faster, it also used up considerably less data.
Boston.com, the worst offender in the test, took 39 seconds to load and used up 19.4 megabytes of mobile data without a blocker running. With one activated, it took only eight seconds and about 4 MB. The Times‘ own website took seven seconds and 3.7 MB; with a blocker on, it took four seconds and 2.1 MB.
With most wireless subscribers in North America carefully watching their monthly data usage, that’s a clear endorsement of the pro side of ad blockers. In that context, it’s almost foolish not to use them.
Google, whose entire business depends on online ads is just about apoplectic on the rise of blockers, calling on the industry to come up with a solution – and fast.
“This is essential to our survival,” an executive recently said at an industry conference. “We’re talking about getting this in a time frame of months rather than years. We need to get going on this.”
The situation is bad in a different way on desktops, where the prevalence of autoplay videos has become a problem in recent months. The time and data these videos use up may not be as dire as on mobile, but they are just as annoying.
As with ad blockers, articles and videos are popping up to show users how to disable these videos in the web browsers themselves, including this one, which ironically has an autoplay video on the same page.
As other commentators have pointed out, users have no reason to feel bad for using ad blockers or disabling autoplay. Users should be able to use the internet without it annoying the hell out of them – unless they voluntarily want it too, of course, in which case they can always delve into reading comments on YouTube videos.
Nor should users be forced to foot the bill in data charges or wasted time from website operators that can’t help themselves.
The online world is one of push and pull – if ad and video blocker use become widespread, content creators will be forced to dial back on these fronts.
If they can’t live without overloading on ads and autoplay videos, well then maybe they don’t deserve to.