It happened again today: I followed a link to a site and got a pop-up accusing me of running an ad blocker. Doc Searls calls ad blocking “The biggest boycott in world history”. How did we get here?

Imagine if, back before the internet, a staid newspaper such as The New York Times or The Chicago Tribune sold ads as just a blank spot in the paper, where the advertiser could insert anything they wish at press time with no review. Can you imagine how horrible those ads would eventually become? They’d start looking like legitimate stories or be patently offensive. No newspaper worthy of the term would even have considered such a thing. They’d start following what seems to be the primary dictum of advertising: the more it annoys your potential customers, the better your ad is. Suppose that advertisers could even supply their own ink without prior review. They’d add scent to your paper-reading experience, then perhaps much worse: toxic chemicals to make you sick so that you would be more likely to buy their anti-nausea medication, perhaps. Or something intoxicating so you would be less likely to critically evaluate their ads’ claims. Never happen, right? How awful!

Yet that is exactly what our institutions of journalism did when they adopted internet advertising. The advertisers were given free reign to insert whatever they wanted into an ad space at the moment the paper delivers a page to their readers. Oh, sure, advertisers had to pinky-swear to not put in deceiving or toxic content, as if that ever works. A tremendous amount of malware (computer viruses, credential stealers, surveillance tools) have been delivered via malvertising — advertising subverted for nefarious purposes. All with the full consent of the publications selling the ad space.

To help combat that, I run a malware and tracker blocker on my network. It’s called a Pi-hole, and it works by blocking access to internet domains known to serve malware or do non-consensual tracking. You can also use it as a kind of ad blocker by adding to its blocklists, or you can pare down its scope if you like to risk getting infected. I run it because I don’t want my systems subverted by evildoers.

I find it offensive when ad-supported sites try to make me feel guilty because I’m blocking them from getting some revenue. I support journalism when I can, with subscriptions and donations. Publications blew it, however, when they greedily ceded their integrity to advertising networks and put all of their readers at risk. I have yet to see a “please disable your adblocker” pop-up in any way apologize or own up to the publishers’ role in making the internet more dangerous for all of us. At best they say “just trust us,” but they violated that trust, refuse to acknowledge it, and have given us no reason to believe they won’t do the same thing again.

I would hate to see independent journalism vanish because of ad blockers, but if that happens let us remember to put the blame where it belongs: squarely on the shoulders of irresponsible, greedy publishers who bought into the whole internet advertising scam without considering the consequences.

Publishers, don’t you think it’s a bit arrogant to expect your readers to invite malware into their lives just so that they can support your publication’s badly broken revenue model?


← previous|next →