Ad-Blocker Apocalypse

What is the ad-blocker apocalypse?

Long ago, before Google Adwords and Adsense, advertisers and publishers worked together. To track the effectiveness of ads, clicks and referrals were counted on the server, which is now called “backend” code. This backend technology is still around, still very effective, and still fundamental to how the Internet works, including mobile.

However, today’s advertisers are focused more on “front-end” technology. This is code that runs on the user’s hardware. In other words, Javascript. Today’s advertisers can’t imagine a world without Javascript. Just to display one simple advertisement, your web browser loads thousands of lines of Javascript code from all over the Internet. Hundreds, maybe thousands of interested parties are monitoring your movements in painstaking detail.

To them, you’re very, very interesting. What does all that front-end code do? As John McAfee has suggested, modern software applications are now so complex, with so many components, they’re collectively beyond any one person’s understanding. A typical advertisement on the Internet has hundreds of applications all watching at you at the same time. Understandably, we fear what we cannnot understand. You’re not alone. Millions of people come to my blog asking the same question: “Who is looking at me?”

Does anyone really know? If you were to try to unravel all of this front-end code, you would see Javascripts loading within Javascripts loading within Javascripts, for as long as you’re looking at a web page. A vast abyss of code, with many unblinking eyes, all trying to make sense of your actions for their various, unknowable interests.

Are you really so interesting that advertisers want to study your every movement? Yes. The value is in the aggregate information. For example, they’re looking for patterns in your behavior compared to the behavior of other people. If they can match your behavior to someone else, they can try to sell you the products and services that other person bought.

Today’s advertisers want to understand you in context. What’s the value of this context? In dollars and cents, it could be very small or very large, depending on who you are. In any case, advertisers extract this value from publishers, from ad networks, and from you, the “user.” You pay the price, with lost privacy, lost trust, lost time and increased frustration.

In terms of time and frustration, does your computer or phone seem slower than when you bought it? The side-effect of advertisers’ desire to know everything about you, their Javascripts and Flash widgets pile up in your web browser, ad by ad, all of them eager for more and more information, all trying to collect and download information about you in the background, until your computer or phone is so burdened with code that it’s just slow.

Once we realize what’s going on, the solution is clear. We don’t want ads auctioning off our privacy, bandwidth, speed and reliability to the highest bidder. We don’t want ads because they’re a nuisance.

It may sound like I don’t like advertising. I do like advertising. I like to see what people are buying and selling. I like to see how advertisers perceive me and so forth. But I use an ad blocker anyway, because I can’t afford my browser crashing while I’m working and I can’t afford ads slowing me down.

How did we get here? Initially, all the data collection and invasive Javascripts weren’t the point of ad networks. Publishers were happy to join forces with ad networks for two reasons.

First, most bloggers can’t afford to hire someone to sell advertising all day. Bloggers and independent publishers are busy producing content. But Google, and the ad networks it spawned, had the money and resources to actively recruit advertisers, luring them in with free vouchers.

Second, with all these new advertisers in the network, advertisers would try to outbid each other for the best ad placement, which in turn raised the advertising rates that bloggers could get for their empty inventory. Empty, unused space that could be filled with ads. This seemed like a win-win for publishers. Now they had big-name advertisers bidding up the ad rates.

Personally, it was exciting to see big store brands paying to reach people on my blog. It raised the profile of my blog. And this was good for advertisers because they were finally able reach people online in a massive way, where before they wouldn’t know what to do with small publishers that they didn’t even know about.

Even better, advertisers could target specific pages. So they didn’t have to buy ads across an entire website. They could laser target the exact content and the exact demographic where people were most likely to make a purchase.

Years passed, more people got online, and just about everyone involved with advertising made more money. The gold rush to build more web pages gave us social networks and content farms. The whole point of a social network is to get people to work for free producing content while they look at advertising.

An estimated 10-15% of people are unhappy with this arrangement, and they did something about it. They use an ad blocker.



To quote an anonymous Hacker News user: “I didn’t ask for relevant ads or privacy intrusions. And if your business model can be demolished by a bit of code that lets me selectively decide what I’m willing to view, it was never a good model anyway.

Another user says: “The current situation is the equivalent of a physical store attaching a tracking device to everyone who looks at their window displays, by force, and tracking every other store the person looks at. In that analogy, ad blocking is giving the guy trying to attach the tracking device a punch in the nose and stopping him … Ads don’t have to be so invasive and intrusive. If they acted responsibly we wouldn’t be so adamant about blocking them.

The Internet is full of similar objections to the ad industry’s abusive practices. The people have spoken and Apple recently responded with changes to iOS9. According to one recent benchmark, mainstream media websites load 4x faster with an ad-blocker enabled, cutting bandwidth consumption in half.

Without a doubt, Apple has rejuvenated developers’ interest in ad-blocking technology. But it’s not just Apple. This is a growing trend.

There’s now several easy ways to block ads. One of the original ad-blockers is called Ghostry, which appears to be a source of data for newer ad-blockers like Crystal. Another one is called “Disconnect.me” that was created by a Google advertising engineer who had a change of heart about social networks tracking people.

To be continued …

If you would like me to finish writing this, let me know. Considering the response so far, with two votes on LinkedIn and one vote on Hacker News, there’s not enough interest to pursue this further.