It’s been years since I last saw a Google ad. I know they’re supposed to fill the white space to the right of my search results, but for years I’ve used two different ad-blocking extensions to my browsers: Adblock and Adblock Plus. While both do an excellent job of de-cluttering my browsing experience, only one seems to be committed to doing so in an open fashion.
It may seem obvious why blocking ads is a very good thing, at least for users. (And, as an aside, it may seem ironic that I’m suggesting people should use ad-blocking software at all, given that ReadWrite, as with most publications, is ad-supported. Perhaps you could whitelist ReadWrite. Or, at least, my column….)
But I block ads because escaping ads frees up the browser to focus on the Internet experience, not a Las Vegas-like barrage of ads.
And let’s be clear: those “targeted” ads? They’re not targeted at all. Tom Davenport, a professor at Babson College and a fellow of the MIT Center for Digital Business, nails it when he writes:
Offers, which are ostensibly based on data and analytics, are almost universally bad. They waste a massive amount of resources, including our time and attention. They also waste the marketing energies of the organizations that issue them.
As he goes on to argue, most companies miss the mark on truly targeting ads because they’re trying to figure out how to push us to buy what they want to sell, and not necessarily what we want to buy. “No amount of analytics will make customers want something that doesn’t suit their needs,” Davenport concludes.
Finally, it’s not clear that blocking ads really hurts the companies paying to advertise, anyway. As University of York professor Richard Chappell points out:
If ad-blocking users have a prior disposition to ignore ads anyway, then convincing these users to disable their adblockers will simply serve to increase the number of ‘dud views’. It does nothing to increase the expected sales for advertisers, and hence they won’t be willing to pay for these extra views.
There are many other reasons to believe that blocking ads, while not necessarily a social good, doesn’t contribute to mass poverty and doom.
How To Block
Which brings us to how you should go about blocking ads. By far the two most popular adblocking programs are Adblock and Adblock Plus. While they sound the same, the two are completely different, and those differences add up to making Adblock Plus the far better choice, as Adblock Plus founder Wladimir Palant argues.
Granted, Palant is heavily compromised in this discussion, but he offers a few excellent reasons for opting for Adblock Plus. I’ve used both programs over the years—and both for several years—and agree with his conclusions.
Keeping Adblocking Open
The first reason to choose Adblock Plus is that, while both projects started as open source, only Adblock Plus remains such. While this may seem unimportant—after all, when was the last time most consumers looked at any source code?—it may actually be the most important consideration of all.
In open source, generally, few people look at or change source code. But we all benefit from those few people who do.
For example, in the case of Adblock, it has been surreptitiously changing key aspects of the ad-blocking experience. Though it has been increasingly proprietary in its approach, it’s still possible to dig into its changelog, which Palant has done, revealing some significant changes:
• AdBlock 2.6.14 (2013-11-09): Not only does AdBlock send a unique user ID to its server (AdBlock 2.6.11 (2013-10-25)), but has also started to transmit a user’s setting determining whether Google Search ads are allowed. The changelog message for this release: “Settings measurement.”
• AdBlock 2.6.20 (2014-02-11): AdBlock sends a request to goldenticket.disconnect.me each time it starts up—but not in the first two days after installation. Apparently AdBlock partnered with Disconnect.me and advertises their services to select users. The Disconnect functionality is now bundled with AdBlock, with their ads whitelisted. Something similar may be happening with MixPanel (see AdBlock 2.6.29 (2014-04-28)).
• AdBlock 2.7 (2014-06-06): Calling home functionality has been extended. It now sends user’s locale in addition to the unique user ID, AdBlock version, operating system and whether Google Search ads are being allowed.
Fair enough, you might say. They’re a business and should be allowed the latitude to make money, right? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you have to use them if there’s an open alternative that works as well or better.
Putting Users First
I remember talking with Palant back in 2011. At the time I was bemused by his strict policy not to accept financial contributions of any kind. He basically argued that money was nowhere near as useful to him as contributed translations, testing, reporting bugs, and general evangelism.
While Adblock Plus now accepts individual donations, I continue to admire Palant’s approach to online advertising. We may have “zero privacy, anyway,” as Sun’s Scott McNealy once famously declared, but both Adblock and Adblock Plus help me to carve out a corner of the Internet where I can be free of ads and associated snooping on my online behaviors.
Except that Adblock, by closing off its code, seems to becoming part of the problem, not the cure. Some of the changes it has already made sound like they’re optimized for Adblock, not its users. I’d rather trust my online browsing experience to a fully open product that is dedicated to operating in the open while maintaining my privacy.
Which is why I now exclusively use Adblock Plus, and you should, too.
Lead image by Flickr user Lord Jim, CC 2.0