By Alex Hern.
Controversial software was branded enemy of publishers, but adblocker developers are reassessing their relationships.
Adblocking, for a long time used quietly by tech-savvy desktop surfers, exploded into the public consciousness in 2015 when Apple allowed content blocking on the iPhone.
For a while, it looked like a war was in the offing: adblocker developers argued that ad-supported media on the net was abusing its readers, while publishers argued that blocking ads was tantamount to theft. Both sides experimented with blocks and counter-blocks, culminating in sites simply blocking all users with an adblocker turned on.
But 18 months on, the landscape has changed. Facebook and Google’s share of digital advertising has continued to rocket, even as every other provider has flatlined. Meanwhile, market penetration of adblockers has plateaued (Britain’s IAB estimates 22% of visitors block ads, the same as this time last year). And as well as fighting back technologically, some sites have started appealing to the morality of visitors, pointing out that blocking adverts deprives publishers of revenue, and requesting adblocking readers whitelist their domains.
It’s not just publishers who have started to push themselves as the moral option, however. Developers of adblockers have been reassessing their own relationship to publishing, and bringing out products intended to ameliorate for the loss of revenue site owners experience from adblocking.
Recently, Adblock Plus, one of the largest desktop adblockers, made a decisive move into this space, buying microdonation platform Flattr for an undisclosed amount.
First launched in 2010, Flattr’s goal has always been to provide an alternative revenue model to ad-supported media. The service allows site owners to load a digital tip jar on their content, which Flattr users can click to thank creators. Each month, Flattr bills users a recurring amount, which is then split between everyone tipped the month before.
Although its heart was in the right place, Flattr struggled to overcome the network effects inherent in its model: publishers wouldn’t bother supporting it if there weren’t enough readers paying in, and readers wouldn’t pay in if their favourite publishers wouldn’t get a cut.
So a partnership with Adblock Plus made sense, and in May last year the two companies announced they’d be working together to create Flattr Plus, removing the need to click a button to distribute tips and instead automatically funding publishers based on engagement, as an alternative to advertising.
That partnership has been solidified further with the merger between the two companies: Adblock Plus now owns both the carrot and the stick.
Not every publisher’s adverts get blocked by Adblock Plus, though. The controversial “acceptable ads” programme allows companies which think they have unintrusive adverts to apply to be whitelisted. Larger companies pay for the privilege, with Google, Microsoft and Amazon handing over huge sums based on the number of views which would otherwise be blocked. That’s led to allegations that the ads programme constitutes a shakedown of sorts, which Flattr Plus does little to dispel.
Other adblock companies are taking a similar approach to finding a middle way but without the requests for direct payments from publishers. Brave is one of the most notable attempts: it’s whole new browser, founded by former Firefox boss Brendan Eich.
Taking on Google on two fronts at once is a bold move, but Brave hopes to both outcompete Chrome as a browser while also blocking the adverts and tracking scripts that provide Google with the bulk of its revenue. Its pitch to users is the same as many adblockers, particularly mobile ones: by stripping out some content, loading times can be improved by “up to 60%”, privacy can be protected, and the web becomes a more pleasant experience for all.
Like Adblock Plus, Brave wants to help publishers in other ways. Users can pay a certain monthly fee which is distributed using bitcoin to the sites you visit, in proportion to how much you visit them. Unlike Flattr, Brave itself doesn’t know which sites the user visits (a handy advantage for a browser selling itself on privacy). Both services do still open themselves up to criticism from the publishers on whose behalf money is being collected, however; Brave, for instance, doesn’t even tell a site owner that it’s been collecting cash until $100 is in the bank, and is currently only able to actually pay out to those publishers who own the domain name they’re publishing on – cold comfort for YouTube creators, for instance, whose adverts, and ad revenue, is still blocked by the browser.
Perhaps the most interesting move to a more moral adblocking has come from Shine, an adblock company which struck a deal with mobile operator Three in 2016 to introduce adblocking across the entire network. Unlike traditional adblockers, the move would have let adverts be blocked at a network level, rendering it nearly impossible for companies to bypass, and allowing adverts to be blocked even in-app, where most mobile adblockers have no sway.
But in February this year, Shine had a change of heart. The company rebranded as Rainbow, and announced a new goal: fixing advertising at both ends of the industry. It will still sit at the top level, but rather than blocking all adverts, its plan now is to use that privileged access to allow advertisers to more accurately and precisely target users, while letting users ensure that obtrusive, annoying or exploitative adverts don’t make it on to their devices.
Make no mistake: Rainbow will still be blocking some ads for users who opt-in to its service. Ad networks which refuse to work with them, and which break the advertising “bill of rights” that Rainbow enforces, will see the offending ads blocked. But unlike Adblock Plus, the company doesn’t charge behaving advertisers to get through; and unlike Brave, it doesn’t declare the ad-funded internet dead while dealing the killing blow itself.
But someone has to pay the piper. Rainbow’s plan is to take advantage of its position near the networks to build up an unassailable amount of data on how users interact with adverts and advertisers, and sell that on. For users who dislike adverts simply because they’re ugly or obtrusive, it could be perfect. For those who call for privacy from advertising trackers, the cure may be as bad as the disease.