(Ad) War and (Ad Blocker) Peace

It’s hard not to fall into the ‘war and peace’ clichés when consider ad blocking and the ad blocking ‘wars’. There have been many articles written about this and there will be many more. Of course there isn’t any blood spilled (thank G-d). There’s panic and the ‘you are going to put us out of business’ accusations that are being volleyed back and forth. It’s a weak first-world version of CNN news during wars – focusing the graphic pictures and the things that will raise viewership regardless of any sort of viewer scarring.

I’ve been using ad blockers on and off somewhat haphazardly. A few weeks ago my co-worker asked me for advice related to ad/tracking blockers for her home machine. Her daughter had reached the pre-teen stage and besides the typical drama my co-worker wondered how to prevent or at least minimize the tracking that her daughter encountered on the web without the use of a cyber-nanny type of program.

My immediate recommendation was Ghostery. I told her “just block everything, and then whitelist the sites that you trust for your daughter.” Was this good advice? I don’t know. It was advice that made sense at the time and to me it still makes sense even now.

I had been using Ghostery for a while and I really liked. The interaction with my co-worker occurred just before iOS 9 was released with purchase-able content blockers for iOS’s Safari browser.

I was about to purchase a content blocker named Peace by one of my favorite iOS developers. I was about to purchase the blocker but I held off because I realized that I did relatively little reading through mobile Safari relegating any long web reading to Instapaper and getting most news through RSS feeds or private Twitter lists that I created.

Right after my purchase hesitation, Marco Arment pulled Peace off Apple’s app store and the Twittersphere went ape sh*t over his decision vilifying him as a pariah that was charging $2.99 from his loyal followers only to yank the ‘app’ rug from underneath them.

Most of the folks beating up on Marco would not hesitate to buy a $3 cup of Starbucks coffee. In fact, they would probably buy a more expensive cup (Grande anyone?). And if they walked out of Starbucks, got into their car and started driving to say work. Lets also say that the Latte they’re drinking had bad milk. How many of these people would turn the car around and bitch the barista out? How many would scream expletives if they did indeed go back. Or would they humbly say “sir – my latte seems to have some bad milk”?

I’m probably biased when it comes to Marco because I appreciate his humanity and his willingness to put himself out there – in the public eye. Heck – he was even willing to explain his Peace related actions and motivations on his podcast (starting around the 18th minute).

Of course Marco isn’t the only developer in the ad blocker spotlight. There’s also Dean Murphy’s Crystal ad blocker and his recent decision to allow certain advertisers through in terms of Crystal’s default settings.

This whole thing made me consider the whole issue of ad blocking. It’s far from a black and white issue. There’s lots and lots of gray in there.

The players seem to be:

  • Content creators: these are the so called ‘publishers’ on the web. The bigger the site, the more obtrusive ad infestation, the greater the complaint about content blockers and how it was ‘the end of publishing as we know it’. It’s as if an iOS 9 content blocker will suddenly transport everyone to the stone age.
  • Advertisers: These are the companies that are paying for ads. They’re also paying for tracking and the magical voodoo known as analytics. They want to get as much data …as much ‘big data’ about their users so they can do things like offer their users ‘useful services’ regardless of whether their customers want this or not.
  • Ad/Tracker Services (ATS): These are the Googles and all those companies that put the mechanisms in place (typically 2nd, 3rd, 4th party JavaScript code) to do tracking and ad serving. Ghostery has an excellent options pane for its browser plug-in that shows their categorization:
    Ghostery Options

  • Developers: these are the developers of content blockers. Whether it is a big company like Ghostery or a tiny developer like Marco or Dean Murphy.

  • Consumers: This is me and all of you. Anyone that uses the web for something is a consumer (whether they want to be or not).

The thing about ads is that they’re not only pushing something onto the consumer, they’re also tracking the consumer. Ghostery displays an amazing little window for each visited site showing the number of ads and trackers that a site has. Here’s one from The New York Times.

The New York Times - Breaking News, World News

The ATSes provide services across all the various sites that you and I visit. How much data has Google collected in terms of Gmail, Google Docs, and Google search usage? What about Facebook? Yahoo? Bing? What about all the other ATSes that we know nothing about?

It’s a complicated subject and there are no easy answers (check out “Back to Work Episode 239” towards the end of the show regarding the fact that this is not easy).

The only voice that I can speak for is myself – as a consumer. Personally, I want advertisers to ask me to opt-in to their data collection and ads. So until they do this, I will use ad blockers like Ghostery.

If I’m ok with The Economist’s pay wall – then why shouldn’t I be with a content wall that a publisher puts up? If a publisher objects to ad blockers, then they should absolutely put up a content wall. I wont be offended. I’ll have a clear choice of whitelisting the site with my blocker or moving on to another site.

Ultimately, ad and content blockers are a consumer’s way of making ad and tracking services opt-in services. Publishers, Advertisers, and Ad/Tracking Services have been unwilling to follow an opt-in approach so now the consumers have the ability to enforce such a process.


As of 9/30/15 – Any ads on this site come from wordpress.com. It’s WordPress’s way of getting paid for the free service that they give me. I don’t get any money out of it.