People using ad-blocking software who visited the The New York Times website in March were shown a message. This read: “The best things in life aren’t free”. It went on to explain that “advertising helps us fund our journalism” and gave the visitor two options to read the newspaper’s online content: disable their ad-blocking software or pay for a subscription.

Many angry internet users took to sites such as Twitter and Reddit to vent their frustrations: “It’s not OK to show me ads that detract from your website design and make it ugly,” said one. Others argued that ads were more than just an irritation as they could compromise user privacy and security.

Despite this opposition, the newspaper is pressing ahead with plans to block the blockers. Dozens of other global media companies are preparing to do the same to protect their online revenues from the rapid and unrelenting rise of ad blocking.

PageFair, a company that helps publishers overcome ad-blocking software, had estimated that more than 200m people now use some form of blocker on their laptop or desktop computers, as do more than 420m of the world’s 1.8bn smartphone users.

For years, there was little publishers could do about people using programs such as Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin, which are free to download and highly effective at eliminating ads from web pages. In most cases, the software works by blocking communication between a web browser and a “blacklist” of internet addresses that are known to serve ads. As a second line of attack, blocking software can also prevent the browser from executing certain types of code associated with ads. However, there is an Achilles heel: blockers cannot work if a website serves both ads and content from a single computer server and shields both using techniques such as encryption. In such circumstances, ad blocking software cannot block the ads without also blocking the content.

A flurry of start-ups — including Sourcepoint and Secret Media — now offer publishers ways to circumvent ad-blocking software.

Another of these, Oriel, in June launched an anti-ad-blocking tool for WordPress, the content management system and blogging platform used by more than 60m websites. This will allow small bloggers as well as large media companies to take action against blocker software.

Illustration by Øivind Hovland for The Connected Business July 2016
© Øivind Hovland

Aidan Joyce, chief executive of Oriel, says: “Ad-blocking technology is a blunt instrument which, by default, makes no differentiation between poor and quality advertising. Most ad-blocking users do not object to a reasonable advertising experience in return for quality free content.”

The New York Times found in its March experiment that more than 40 per cent of adblock users agreed to “whitelist” the website — thereby allowing ads to appear on their screens — so they could see the content.

Mark Thompson, the group’s chief executive, said at a conference in June: “No one who refuses to contribute to the creation of high-quality journalism has the right to consume it. We are not there yet but, if we judge that it will strengthen the long-term prospects of that journalism to prevent non-subscribers who employ ad blockers and refuse to whitelist us from reading it, we’ll do it.”

To cater for people who hate advertising, the news organisation plans to introduce a higher-priced, advertisement-free subscription.

Ben Barokas, chief executive of Sourcepoint, predicts that most publishers will have adopted some kind of technology to circumvent ad blockers by 2020. In his view, media groups should offer consumers a range of different ways to access content, including for-free with ads, micropayments and subscriptions.

“Ad blocking is a canary in the coal mine for the media industry to be more transactional and more transparent in its relationship with consumers,” Mr Barokas says.

However, Sean Blanchfield, chief executive of PageFair, argues that publishers need to exercise care in how they use ad-blocker circumvention technology. He warns that such technology should not be used to preserve the status quo.

“Users have fundamental, legitimate concerns,” he says. “Ads that are served today have serious privacy and security problems.”

Mr Blanchfield says that PageFair aims to help publishers “redefine the advertising experience in a way that the typical ad-block user wouldn’t find objectionable”.

He argues that publishers who fail to improve the ads they serve will alienate people and drive them towards platforms such as Facebook.

Publishers that ban ad blockers also risk losing their audience to rivals that take a more permissive stance. In some ways that matters little, since ad-block users do not generate ad revenues. But this argument ignores the fact that internet users are not just passive consumers; they often help distribute a publisher’s content by sharing links with friends through email, forums and social media.

More than half of UK adults using an ad blocker said they would switch it off if doing so was the only way to access a website, according to a survey by YouGov for the Interactive Advertising Bureau. But 39 per cent said they would not disable their ad blocker for any site.

Meanwhile, Sweden’s biggest publishers will join forces next month to call the ad blockers’ bluff. In a month-long experiment the publishers will collectively block people who use ad blocking software. The idea is that by acting en masse, they will be able to turn the ad-blocking tide.

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