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Adblock Plus, scourge of websites, seeks middle ground with industry

AFP-JIJI

For its users, Adblock Plus stands as a bulwark against intrusive advertising. But websites dependent on advertising revenue to remain free of charge see the open source software as a scourge.

Now the German firm behind Adblock Plus is taking a more conciliatory tack, reaching out to its adversaries to find an “acceptable” level and form of advertising on the net.

Adblock Plus’ owners, Eyeo, have dubbed the discussions surrounding its plans to set up an independent committee for acceptable advertising as “Camp David,” alluding to a 1978 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

And that gives an idea of the scope of the difficulties in getting Internet publishers, advertisers and ad-blockers to sit around the same table and talk.

The first such “summit” was held in New York in November and the second earlier this month in London.

It brought together “the biggest European names in publishing, ad-tech, advertising, digital nonprofits and content creation,” said Eyeo spokesman Ben Williams, without revealing any names.

Developed 10 years ago and downloaded hundreds of millions of times, the open-source software Adblock Plus is one of the most popular ad-blocking programs, aimed at preventing intrusive adverts from popping up on the screen and tracking a user’s search history for commercial ends.

Its rising popularity is a red rag to a bull for Internet websites that can only remain free thanks to revenues from advertisers.

Adobe and Pagefair, which help Internet sites circumvent the blockers, have estimated that nearly $22 billion in revenues were lost globally last year as a result of ad-blocking software.

Adblock Plus’ users can themselves partly decide which advertisers to block or not using tailor-made filters. But ultimately, only those who appear on Eyeo’s own “white list” of acceptable ads can be displayed.

To get on that white list, advertisers must meet certain criteria laid drawn up Eyeo itself which stipulate how nonintrusive ads should be in terms of size, placement and labeling, explained Williams.

Big websites can pay a fee not to be blocked. And it is these proceeds that finance the Cologne-based company and its 49-strong workforce. While Google and Amazon have paid up, others refuse.

Axel Springer, which publishers Germany’s best-selling daily Bild, accuses Eyeo of racketeering.

“We believe Eyeo’s business model is against the law,” a spokesman for Springer.

“Clearly, Eyeo’s primary aim is to get its hands on a share of the advertising revenues.”

Ultimately, such practices posed a threat to the professional journalism on the web, he suggested, an argument Eyeo rejects.

“The Acceptable Ads initiative is rather a chance to provide innovation in the ads industry, a chance to get away from blunt, complete ad-blocking and the result of user demand for something better,” said Williams.

The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, WAN-IFRA, acknowledges the need for “guiding principles” on the matter.

Publishers “have a unique opportunity to re-define how advertising works online and save the mechanism of advertising that supports content on the open web. Publishers, not platforms, must take the lead,” said WAN-IFRA director Ben Shaw.

WAN-IFRA, which is organizing an “Ad Blocking Action Day” soon in the German business capital Frankfurt, has set up its own “International Task Force” to review and share best practices, Shaw said.

Axel Springer has taken Adblock Plus to court.

And Juergen Seitz, a professor for marketing, media and digital industries at the Stuttgart Media University, was skeptical whether the two sides would be prepared to bury the hatchet any time soon.

“Both sides are digging their heels in and their standpoints are still very far apart. I currently see no way of resolving the conflict, particularly as neither the publishers nor the ad-blockers make up a homogeneous group,” Seitz said.

“The smaller, lesser-known ad-blockers have no interest in starting up a conversation.”

But he insisted that Adblock Plus should be given credit for “actively seeking dialogue out of the courts, even though it’s the publishers’ enemy number one and styles itself as such in its PR.”

In October, Bild went on the offensive, denying access to its website to anyone who uses ad-blocking software. To be able to access the site, users must de-activate the software or pay for an ad-free version. The German site of Geo magazine has adopted a similar strategy.

And what would become of Eyeo in an ideal world where all Internet advertising is acceptable?

“Then we’ll either have developed new products or we’ll be history,” said spokesman Williams.

  • Stephen Chadfield

    Apart from web advertisements being intrusive two other issues are that they are a vector for malware and they use up a lot of bandwidth which can be expensive on mobile platforms. The popularity of ad-blocking software is a direct response to bad behaviour by the advertising companies.

  • GBR48

    AdBlock protects people from bandwidth abuse, perpetrated by an unethical and unregulated advertising industry, and in some cases from malware. Whilst people are forced to pay per byte, on any contract, or have limited bandwidth, their services are necessary. They should be supported by the UN for preventing the unlimited proliferation of digital pollution.

    If AdBlock was itself blocked by courts or outfits like Adobe, other options would be used (simply turning off graphics and pop ups in browsers and deleting Adobe software are the easiest). Without it, there are an awful lot of sites that people would visit once, and then never again.

    The advertising industry has always been one of the least ethical on the planet. It should take the opportunity offered by Eyeo and behave responsibly. The global, viral backlash against any organisation or company that took down AdBlock would be fearsome. And that would include Microsoft, who can block and remove software at will in Windows 10 (it’s free, so no surprise that it works like Facebook, and is able to control what you use it for, and how).