“For free content to survive, advertising has to find levels and techniques consumers can tolerate.” Wendy M Grossman questions the extent to which blocking adverts benefits the user and argues that we need more control about what adverts we see than the current options of all or none.

Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Flickr: tdlucas5000

It's long been obvious that there's a genuine problem with respect to advertising both online and in older media. The more invasive and frequent ads get, the more consumers take action to insulate themselves by blocking, bypassing, or editing. It is clear, for example, that at least some of the success of video recording is the ability to skip or fast-forward through commercials. Yet consumers also expect to be able to access a great deal of new content either for free or at an aggregate price that means that no one piece of it costs much.

Advertising as a business model worked for a long time, in part because the market was divided up into a small number of relatively large audiences with relatively few alternative choices. Today's market continues to fracture into smaller and smaller pieces, and as the rates content owners can charge drops accordingly, they get desperate to replace the lost revenue. And so US television gets 22-minute half hours, the London Underground gets video billboards, and news web sites display moving ads that (deliberately) draw the eye away from the thing you're trying to read, making it impossible to concentrate.

The result is an arms race between frustrated consumers and angry content owners and advertisers. Consumers block ads by installing browser plug-ins; sites such as retaliate by refusing to play video clips to anyone blocking ads. Industry responds with DVRs optimised to skip ads and fast forward buttons, and sometimes gets sued as a result. At the industry level, however, the game looks a little different. You might call it "Who owns the audience?"

At the beginning of January, the French internet service providerFree, sent out a firmware router update that added a new feature that blocks ads for its subscribers. If you want ads, you can get them, but you have to opt in. This week, the French minister for the digital economy, Fleur Pellerin, told it to stop.

I'm sure Free thought it was taking a popular approach. As the above-linked article notes, the Firefox extension Adblock Plus alone has 43 million users worldwide, even operating under the disadvantage that users must learn about, locate, and install it. For that many people to take that much effort to buck the system means real and widespread discontent with the status quo. A smart ISP trying to compete might well see default ad-blocking as a unique selling point, at least in the short term; longer term, for free content to survive, advertising has to find levels and techniques consumers can tolerate.

However, as Deutsche Welle points out, this case is also a twist on the kinds of debates we've seen before, first in disputes between cable companies and TV networks, and more recently framed in the online world as network neutrality. Ultimately, this is about who pays. Should Google, whose business relies on the ability of billions of people to reach their services via their internet connections, pay ISPs and mobile network operators for delivering that audience to it? Or should ISPs and mobile network operators regard Google as a major reason people bother to subscribe to their services in the first place? Which one is the opportunistic parasite?

Those of us who do not work for either side probably would say neither. Instead, it's more reasonable to see all these large companies as interdependent and all benefiting from the relationships in question. Symbionts, not parasites at all. So far, despite various loud demands and threats at various times, the industry has generally behaved as though it agreed. Bandwidth-swamping video, however, always had the potential to disrupt that, not least because the cable companies that deliver internet services also deliver television (just as the telephone companies were the ones complaining when internet telephony became popular). In France, however, there is some precedent for seeing Google as the unfair beneficiary; Deutsche Welle notes that last year Google began paying the country's largest ISP, Orange, for some of its traffic. In a larger piece on the many points of failure in online TV viewing, Gigaom points to a possibly similar spat in the US between Netflix and Comcast. There, however, there is the added complication of the First Amendment, which protects even commercial speech.

In any event, blocking ads at the router level offers consumers mixed benefits. You don't have to see ads, great. However, that also means rendering some sites inaccessible. Most notably, anything owned by the US TV network CBS refuses to display content to anyone blocking ads (my doped-up Firefox can't load CBS subsidiary ZDNet, and the home of a friend whose router blocks all ad networks is practically a news-free zone). Browser-based blocking can be easily turned off or bypassed; for technically unsavvy consumers router or ISP-based blocking is a blunt instrument of mass destruction. It's not censorship, since lost sites are not being specifically targeted for disruption. But it benefits no one to have sites unpredictably drop out of availability. For free content to survive, advertising has to find levels and techniques consumers can tolerate.

It pains me to say that Free's approach is wrong because I hate so many online ads so much, but it is, because as I've seen the system described it is only user-configurable in the broadest sense: on or off. Users need more and finer-grained choices than that.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

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By Wendy M Grossman on Jan 15, 2013

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