Wednesday, 1 March 2017

If you want my adblocker, you'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands...

I

I haven't seen an internet ad for years. Adblocker software is a wonderful invention, ranking up there with vaccines and sunscreen (honestly, sunscreen is incredible). But the media is obsessed with adblocker as a scapegoat to avoid serious introspection about why the industry is failing. So I feel like I have to defend it.

Let me make it simple.

The computer is not a television. It's not the open end of a sewer where a company can flush down whatever rubbish it wants so it can make money. It's my computer. It's my internet connection. It's my monitor, and it's my browser. I display want I want to display, and I don't display want I don't want to see. You can't make money if I don't show your ads on my screen? Sucks to be you. Find another way to make money. Or find another line of work. I ain't my problem.

And let's dispense with the veiled threats about how "the sites I love might disappear." Most of the time I have no idea what site I'm on because I found the article when I clicked on a link from somewhere else. Did I read that on Digg or Wired? Does it make a difference? If the site "I love" disappears, there are another thousand like it.

You know what I would like to see? I want to see Google release the next version of Chrome with adblocker turned on by default. You want to be in the publishing business? Learn to make money off your content, not off the ads.

If you think it's a moral argument to keep the ads on to pay for the content, that is the height of lazy thinking. I refuse to give you a moral argument for rejecting content which by its very nature is deceptive, misleading and distracting. If you record a TV show, do you watch the commercials? Do you review every ad in a magazine or newspaper?

II

The whole premise is morally bankrupt. "Take the content and take the ads" does not imply I'll actually read the ads. What you want is for people to download the ads so that the advertiser can pay the content provider regardless of whether they are even read. That is immoral. Ad blocking ensures an advertiser doesn't have to pay for me ignoring their ad.

Why should advertisers pay for ads that aren't read? If you're going to assume I wouldn't read the ads even if I turned off adblock, then wouldn't leaving adblock on allow the site operator to more accurately relate ads-viewed to ads-read? In fact, ad-blockers should really increase the quality of advertising metrics by allowing site owners to distinguish between page-views and ad-views because the page-views of people like me (who ignore ads) right now don't get counted.

The best way around this is to charge me for the content. But you'd better have content worth paying for.

I'm actually contemplating running a fairly low-end XP machine that doesn't crash or contract viruses, spyware or malware. I want an immunity to completely lock down my web experience. Nothing runs on my computer unless I want it to.

And really, there is no such thing as "a site" from my point of view. I'm looking at content. The way you design a site and how I see the information on your server are not remotely the same thing. The extent to which I monkey with the presentation of websites on my end is not limited to adblocker.

A site sometimes asks me politely to take the ads with the content and I politely decline. I choose to take the content alone. That's an option the site makes available to me. Someone making a request doesn't impose a moral obligation to grant that request. I am responsible for what ends up on my computer. So I'm doing the responsible thing when browsing the web to only load content I want from the sites.

But let's turn it around: how is the site owner morally justified in allowing their site to be used as a vector for other sites outside their control to run javascript or flash on my machine? Oh right, they make money doing it.

III

More importantly, morality and ethics shouldn't enter into this.

I don't have a relationship with the site operator. I have no reason to trust them. They have even less of an idea who I am so it would be insane for them to trust me. What we have is a business relationship. It is in the business of putting content on the internet for free, that's the business they chose, and I consume the content. End of discussion. The problem is the content is free. But that isn't my problem. That was a choice the site made to maximise its traffic.

There are a lot of ways to make money online without ads. You can charge for the content. Or you could charge for premium content. Or charge for access to message boards. Or you could find a way to collect money from "enthusiasts" or superfans, the way Metafilter has achieved. Or charge admission to hold conventions or other site-related events. You can get sponsorships, in which an image is added to the site for the sponsor in a way that isn't blocked by adblockers. The options for this new world really are limited only by your imagination.

Or you can be lazy and turn over 60% of your page's real estate to javascript and Google, or the highest bidder, and hope for the best. Good luck with that.

Claiming the ad-supported model is not free is to adopt the industry's use of the term "free" and ultimately cede the entire argument to them.

This is the argument: television and music have always been and continue to be legally free to the consumer over broadcast channels. Producers have never collected revenue from consumers on these broadcasts. I have never paid one cent directly to anyone who ever made a television show or pop song when I saw it on television or listened to it on the radio.

All ad-supported business models are free to the end user. If it costs me no money, it is free. On-air television is free. I can watch anything on network television legally without paying anything. FM radio is likewise free. Courts have long held that recording programs off the air (timeshifting) is also legal and not a violation of copyright law.

Yes, I realise the advertiser pays to have the content delivered to me for free. I also realise I have to buy a TV, radio or computer to obtain these broadcasts (or downloads). But no one includes these in the equation. If so, the reductio ad absurdum of this argument is that I have to spend my time watching or listening, and because time is valuable, simply listening to music isn't free. None of this helps the conversation.

Somebody somewhere is paying, but it isn't me. So it's free to me.

IV

Here's the important bit - I have no legal relationship with any of the parties involved in playing a television show on my TV. I signed no contract, and there is no license agreement. I am not obligated to and am totally unencumbered by the content provider. I make no promise or representation to watch the ads that "pay" for the television show, nor do the broadcasters make any such promise or representation that its viewers will actually watch the ads.

Companies spend money with television stations to air their commercials. That is the contract. But they're not spending money to show viewers their ads because they have no idea if anyone is seeing them, nor can networks promise that viewers will see them. At best they can argue that out of a tiny but allegedly representative sample of viewers, some percentage watched the broadcaster's program. That's about it.

And if you argue there is an implied license to view the commercials along with the program, you set yourself on the road of enabling a web site to sue you for copyright infringement for altering the appearance of their page by running adblock. I am not a criminal for blocking your dumb Google ads, and I am not a criminal for ignoring your dumb commercials.

So that was the status quo. Now they are trying to not only change the rules but in order to do that, they are forced to alter history and recast what was happening in the past in a completely self-serving and arbitrary manner.

Set aside the law for a moment. It is not a breach of anyone's moral code to download music over the internet. It is not analogous to copying a friend's CD no matter how vociferously anyone says so. It is analogous to timeshifting a television show or radio broadcast.

I missed Family Guy last night. I could have legally taped it on my legal DVR and legally skipped the commercials. In fact, I legally could have started and stopped the recording of the show to prevent recording the commercials in the first place. But instead of doing this, I borrow my friend's copy of the show (also legal, both the borrowing and my friend's timeshifting). But in this case, my friend is the Pirate Bay. No, the Pirate Bay doesn't have the ads, but if had I watched the show live at 8:00 pm, I can assure you I wouldn't have seen a single ad anyway.

Same with music. Music from the internet does not replace CD's. There is no cover, no sleeve, no physical CD. Video on the internet does not replace DVDs for the same reason. I understand everyone calls these things "files" and I understand all the technical similarties between music files on a hard drive and music on a CD. My point is, all those technical similarities are a) irrelevant, and b) are lost ground in the argument.

V

What is happening now is the content distributors are for the first time trying to collect money directly from me, in effect infinitely raising the price on what I once got for free by replacing unauthorised downloads with legal ones which cost money, such as iTunes.

As a general point, if iTunes charged less for music, people would buy more of it and it will balance out the same. Sell me a digital download of an album for a couple of bucks, and I won't buy 20 of them per year, like I might with CD's - I'll buy a couple of hundred.

But I have a better idea. Why not let Google pay a fee just like radio stations? Google could archive everything so you can search to download songs and pay nothing. Google would make money on searches in the same way they do now, and you get the benefit of an extremely simple interface. Plus, the artists get paid.

The way it is now, I have to search for files using Google and click ten times before I get a working link. The only entity getting paid with this process is Google.

Besides, the content producers - the people who actually make the product I watch or hear - do get compensation from me. Every song I listen to massively increases the probability of a ticket sale at a theatre or concert. And I'll tell others about the artist. The industry calls it "buzz" or "word-of-mouth" to downplay that it's really just free advertising far more valuable than anything from Ogilvy or BBDO.

Content itself has been legally free to end consumers for decades, and the rapid spread of "pirating" online is really an extension of this legally free consumption, rather than a sudden universally popular crime spree.

The problem with the law is that while people were so quick to educate the "old fashioned" courts about the exciting and amazing new world of computers, they failed to see the legal point that viewing copyright work is not the same as distributing or copying it. Because of this, we have the MegaUpload/Kim DotCom case about copying .mp3 files over a network instead of about people sharing music.

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