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The Moral Question of Ad-Blocking

By Desmonda Lawrence
22 Aug 2018

A large proportion of websites and web content providers that do not charge a subscription fee or sell their content directly rely on advertising. Yet an increasingly large proportion of internet users are employing filtering software which is now able to block nearly all ad formats. Thus those using this software can access free content while blocking all advertising.

Consider the situation for online newspapers that do not put up a paywall, and therefore rely on advertising to pay journalists. Many online publishers claim that ad blocking is a problem. There seems to be a tension between people’s desire not to view advertising, and their desire to access free content on the internet. What are the ethical dimensions of this tension? Are viewers under an obligation to allow advertising through on websites they access for free – if that advertising is what pays for the website?

People use ad blockers for a number of reasons: they find ads annoying, invasive, and distracting; ads can use large amounts of data, especially video files; and they can slow down page loading time. People are also increasingly worried about misuse of personal information. In the transition from print to digital media ads have become more invasive. The prevalence of ad blocking appears to be a response to this. It has especially increased with targeted advertising, suggesting people don’t like being followed around by ads.

Some statistical research suggests that numbers of people using ad-blockers in 2016 was edging up to one third of internet users in the USA. Rates are comparable for the UK and Australia. These numbers will likely have increased in 2018. It is claimed that ad blocking has a measurable economic impact that can be quantified as “lost revenue”.  The economic impact of ad blocking was estimated to be 40 billion US dollars worldwide in 2016. (Again, this estimate will have increased.)

It might be objected that this is a spurious claim. One report on ad-blocking statistics states:

Potential digital advertising revenue was calculated by dividing the reported revenue for 2014… by the ad blocking rate in a particular country. Blocked advertising revenue was estimated as the difference between potential and reported revenue. (P15)

But how do we know that this is in any way representative? How do we know that the people who have blocked the ads would be buying the products if they were looking at the ads? It is likely that some ad blocker users already hold negative perceptions of advertising, and would boycott products or brands whose ads they deem intrusive or offensive. In such cases, an attempt to curb ad blocking may not make commercial sense.

Yet more online publishers are attempting to remedy ad blocking by requesting that users disable the software, or sometimes by making content unavailable to those using it. Given that a large proportion of online publishers rely on advertising as a major source of revenue, is ad blocking ‘cheating’ somehow, by accessing content that is free on the proviso that ads are reaching viewers?

It could be argued that ad blocking manifests as a form of the free-rider problem because if advertising pays for free content, then those who are viewing ads are supporting the content for those who ad-block.

The free rider problem is usually thought of in terms of collective or group contributions towards a particular outcome. Each individual in a group can benefit if all members of a group contribute. The idea is that there will be a net-effect based on the small contributions of individuals; contributions that on their own would be too small to make a significant difference but which  have a cumulative effect. However there may be a small number of individuals within the group who do not make a contribution (small enough that the net effect is hardly impacted) and yet who benefit from the contribution of others. They are called free riders.

The ethical point is the free rider gets a benefit without shouldering a cost. It is hard to argue that that is fair. Most people don’t enjoy ads, but if everyone blocks all ads, then many websites would have to look for other means of income, which would be bad for everyone because it would likely mean charging for content, resulting in everyone having to pay.

It is, in a sense, a separate question whether ad blocking in itself is a moral issue. Surely people who use ad blockers are exercising a ‘right’ to be free from annoying interference. But, it could be objected, no such right really exists; if you don’t want to pay for the websites you’re viewing or the search engines you’re using, then you will have to put up with the ads that fund them.

Yet it is hard to see how a claim that blocking ads is in itself immoral could really stand up. A person viewing a website is under no obligation to view ads, just as someone reading a print newspaper is under no obligation to read the advertising. An advertising contract is between the website and the advertiser. In fact, if it is understood beforehand (as it ought to be) that ads will not reach the whole of a ‘target consumer audience’ then that’s the risk the advertiser takes, and it is simply factored in a cost of doing business.

On the other hand, if the alternative is subscription, then those using ad blockers and getting the benefit of free content are relying on others not to ad-block. So even if you don’t think it is unethical in itself to ad-block, it is probably the case that those who use blockers free-ride on those who do not. And this, in itself, could constitute an ethical issue.

However, the advertising industry is certainly not morally neutral. Tim Wu, in his 2016 book The Attention Merchants, writes about advertising as the “industrialisation of human attention capture,” characterising an industry that was originally founded on pedalling falsehoods and exploiting forms of persuasion and deception for commercial gain. It is well known that advertisers use cutting edge psychological research to manipulate consumers, take advantage of people’s vulnerabilities (such as body-image), and attempt to create new desires for new consumer goods.

In view of this, it is hard to defend the position that anyone is under an obligation to view advertising material. It seems fair, then, that as advertisers find more aggressive ways of saturating people’s internet experiences with advertising, people concurrently find more effective ways of blocking them. If that doesn’t quite deal with the way in which use of ad-blockers impacts publishers whose content is free, perhaps there is a balance to be struck in which some onus falls on online publishers to refuse advertisers’ most invasive and irritating content. Perhaps users might also need to consider being more open to paying for some content to cut out the need for ad revenue.

Dr Desmonda Lawrence received her PhD in philosophy from The University of Melbourne in 2017, with a dissertation on the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. She currently works as a freelance researcher and writer, as well as a sessional tutor in philosophy and ethics. She is a member of the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy where she teaches short courses. Her research and teaching specialties include moral philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of literature, criticism and poetics.
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