One of the most controversial trends to hit the internet in recent years is the advent and growth of website ad blockers. These are browser extensions or applications which block advertisements from being displayed on websites.
Are ad blockers illegal? While I’m not aware of any particular court cases which indicate such, there definitely is copyright infringement taking place by the use of ad blockers, and some who monitor the industry think litigation and legislation are on the immediate horizon. What’s the problem?
Apple Allows Infringement
Ad blocking of online advertisement is a complicated issue. Most websites survive, prosper, or fail based upon advertising revenue, which is generated by viewing ad impressions and clicking ads. In many cases, if you, the viewer, do not click on an advertisement during your visit to a website, the site does not receive revenue.
In other cases, the mere presence of an ad on a website page generates some revenue, though usually less is generated than ads which require clicks. That click requirement means advertisers and publishers are in a race to attract a reader’s attention to ads in whatever means possible. In turn, that has bred an endless stream of torturously offensive ads which clutter website pages; ads which are embedded as pop up links within content, or employ fancy graphics and animation to catch the reader’s eye.
Just as internet technology can track reader behavior while reading or viewing content on a website page, similar technology can be used to block such advertisements completely from view. A good example is Apple’s own built-in Reader mode in Safari. Navigate to an article on a website, click the Reader button, and all the advertisements disappear, leaving only the basic content.
Gone are the website’s copyrighted layout and graphics design, as well as advertisements which account for the publisher’s revenue. Based upon how a website’s terms of service or copyright notices are expressed, such altering of the content without permission– from use of the simple Reader mode to an outright blocking of all ads– is deemed copyright infringement.
A growing number of website publishers are promoting the problem as a danger to the internet as we know it. The response by some publishers, Mac360 included, is to exercise restraint and reduce or limit the number of advertisements on each website page, and to filter out the most annoying and egregiously offensive ads.
Make no mistake about it. Any unauthorized altering of copyrighted material can be deemed copyright infringement. Some websites have gone to the extreme whereby those with ad blockers in use are prohibited from viewing the site. Other publishers simply point out to ad block users the obvious and dangerous effect and harm that comes from blocking.
It’s easy to understand why ad blockers exist. Far too many websites are so dependent upon advertising that pages are cluttered with annoying ads, sometimes numbering a dozen or more per page. That’s an untenable situation for readers. There’s too much visual clutter and readers take action into their own hands, not fully realizing the impact it can have on a website (just as publishers may not fully realize the impact that clutter has on readers). It’s a difficult proposition to make money in a competitive advertising environment. For example, for Mac360, our advertising revenue is approximately one third what it was five years go, despite a growing readership.
Remember Napster, the peer-to-peer file sharing service? Basically, Napster technology enabled internet users to steal music by ‘sharing‘ music online with others in a peer-to-peer network. Napster didn’t do the stealing. People stole music by using Napster technology. Napster was sued for copyright infringement, lost, and eventually was shut down. Once ad blocking technology reaches a certain level which severely impacts a website’s revenue source and causes a specific amount of pain to powerful publishers, copyright infringement will be used to shut down those who create and publish ad blocking technology.
Are website ad blockers illegal?
Once ad blocking reaches certain threshold of damage to website advertising revenue, lawyers will be involved, and I have little doubt that the courts will not side with ad blocking technology which is used to alter copyrighted material.
Our perspective at Mac360 is simple and we’re responding to the issue in what we are convinced is a reasonable manner. We’ve reduced the number of advertisements per page from a dozen to three (and have plans to reduce that even more). We’ve removed offensive popup ads and embedded link advertising. We do not string a bunch of unrelated so-called content links and video links across the bottom of each page (those are big revenue generators for some sites, though equally offensive). In return for our restraint, we ask readers who use ad blockers to place Mac360 on a whitelist. For all readers, we ask that you support appropriate advertisers on Mac360 in exchange for access to our reviews and commentary.