In case you are new to this Internet thing, there has been a long-running debate about advertising on the web. Basically, what it boils down to is that nobody has really found a way to pay for doing things on the internet at scale that does not involve displaying advertising to users.

While it is true that display advertising involves less friction than a paywall, there are all sorts of problems with the model. One is simply accounting. Most adverts are paid for based on the number of times they are displayed to users. However, on the web, that just means that the URL was invoked - so it is possible to sabotage a rival's advertising campaign by retrieving the URLs for their ads automatically and very rapidly, until the budget for their ad campaign is exceeded. This prevents humans from seeing the ads, while costing the advertiser a chunk of cash.

The other problem is a variation: just because the ad has been retrieved by a web browser that has an actual human customer - or at least a prospective customer - sitting in front of it, does not mean that the ad gets displayed to that customer.


These days, most advertising is fairly benign, but in the early days it was a bit of a Wild West out there, with pop-overs, pop-unders, interstitials, and so on. In those dark times normal ad blockers were insufficient, so I used a Firefox add-on called Greasemonkey to actually rewrite web pages on the fly and remove the worst excesses. Nowadays, apart from a few sites (ahem Forbes ahem) that stick by the interstitial, most of those early techniques have mercifully died out.

However, old habits die hard, plus some people seem to be actively offended by ads - in the content they are getting for free, let's not forget - and so very many people routinely use ad blockers in their web browsers.

There has been some debate about whether this actually constitutes theft, although a German court has recently ruled that it does not meet the legal definition of theft.

Regardless, I feel that it meets my moral definition of theft. Companies put out content with the expectation of being paid for it, so it seems churlish at best for me to enjoy the content but refuse them the chance to make a fraction of a penny from their advertisers off my enjoyment. There is a line, but nowadays I am more likely simply not to visit offending sites than to try to bypass the ads.

Problems do remain with this model, not least becase of the sketchy things that it forces people to do:

The second gross thing is that we've given just one more piece of information about our customers to Facebook, but not in a way that is directly useful to us. Even though we're doing the leg work to build up this dossier on our customers, we don't actually get to look into the file. Only Facebook does. When Facebook eventually goes away, the information is gone. When Facebook becomes more extortionate, the information is gone.

The ad blockers are no better on the moral plane:

In a particularly evil move, some ad blockers have started charging ad networks ransom. Ad blockers work by whitelisting some sites and blacklisting others. One of the most high-profile examples of pay-for-whitelisting is a deal struck back in February between Adblock Plus and Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Taboola. The price: “Thirty percent of the additional revenues it would make from being unblocked."

In this situation, the best users can do is to try to tread the middle ground, watching their cookies and occasionally clearing them out, without going so far as to block ads programmatically.

The good news is that I am beginning to see new services that appear to be making subscription models work. I don't know whether this is a function of the particular niches they are in and that catch my interest, my age (I'm a leading-edge "digital native", surfing just ahead of obsolescence), or my disposable income and consequent willingness to pay for good content - but the bottom line is that I don't even see banner ads any more, so it's an easy moral decision to make.

Image by Joshua Earle via Unsplash