National and local newspapers in New York © Alamy

A new front has opened in the ad blocking war, pitting more than a dozen of the US’s biggest newspaper publishers against a technology start-up that they argue is trying to profit illegally from their content.

Brave, a web browser launched in January by Brendan Eich, a co-founder of Firefox-maker Mozilla, promises internet users a better experience by eliminating intrusive advertising, while also funnelling revenue to publishers from reader donations and new ads that Brave inserts on their sites.

Publishers see the business model in a different light. This week, the companies behind 1,200 of the US’s biggest newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, challenged Brave with a cease and desist letter in which they called its model “blatantly illegal”.

“Your plan to use our content to sell your advertising is indistinguishable from a plan to steal our content to publish on your own website,” they wrote.

Brave fired back, describing the claims as “false assertions”, and arguing that its software “is the solution, not the problem, for users and publishers”.

“Make no mistake. This letter is the first shot fired in a war on all ad blockers,” it says.

The conflict between publishers reliant on advertising revenues and technology companies that enable readers to strip out digital ads with the tap of a button is escalating.

Media companies worry that Brave and other ad blockers threaten their revenues at a time when many of their readers are looking to get their news via platforms such as Facebook, rather than by visiting a newspaper’s website.

“It’s a continuing set of challenges for publishers to maintain control of their businesses,” says Brian Kane, co-founder and chief operating officer of Sourcepoint, a company that helps publishers take on ad blockers by blocking them or offering alternative options for readers to access content.

Brave is joining a crowded ad blocking market, as companies sprout up to tap into rising consumer concerns over privacy, security and malware. Users are also increasingly concerned by how data-heavy ads slow down page loading times while also eating into their data plans.

More than 200m people worldwide use ad blocking software, double the number two years ago, according to estimates by PageFair, the anti-blocking service, and Adobe, the software company.

Almost all of the most widely-used web browsers, including Google’s Chrome, Apple’s Safari and Firefox, allow users to block ads.

Brave goes a step further than other ad blocking groups. The company aims to give readers several options: simply block ads, donate to publishers or get paid in bitcoin to view replacement ads brokered by Brave. It says it will split ad revenues with publishers.

But the publishers who signed this week’s letter argued this violates their copyright and threatened to seek damages of up to $150,000 per piece of content against which Brave serves its own ads.

Brave countered that web browsers do not republish content. “Browsers do not just play back recorded pixels from the publishers’ sites. Browsers are rather the end-user agent that mediates and combines all the pieces of content, including third-party ads and first-party publisher news stories,” the company says. “Browsers are free to ignore, rearrange, mash-up and otherwise make use of any content from any source.”

Brave is not the only company whose model depends on taking a cut of ad revenues.

Eyeo, the company behind Adblock Plus, the most widely-used blocking software, has for years been taking payments from companies including Google and Microsoft to allow some of their ads through its filters. The company’s critics liken this so-called acceptable ads scheme to extortion.

In February, Randall Rothenberg, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, described ad blocking companies as an “unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes”.

Mobile network operators have also spotted an opportunity. Digicel, the Caribbean-focused network owned by Denis O’Brien, Ireland’s richest man, started blocking ads on its network in Jamaica in September. The company is working with Shine, an Israeli start-up, whose software prevents companies including Google from delivering ads to mobile browsers and apps.

Mr O’Brien has said he wants to force digital media groups “to put their hands in their pockets” and pay Digicel to allow their ads to reach its customers.

With ad blocking rates rising, media companies are increasingly pushing back. German media group Axel Springer forced readers of Bild, Europe’s biggest-selling tabloid newspaper, to either turn off ad blocking or pay for a subscription to access its content. The company said last November that the policy led to a drop in the number of readers using ad blockers from 23 per cent to a “single-digit”.

UK broadcasters ITV and Channel 4 are among a number of companies that have refused to load content on their websites when they detect that a visitor is using an ad blocker.

Forbes recently began asking readers with ad blocking software to turn it off to be able to read its articles. The company found that 42 per cent of the 2.1m visitors who were asked to disable their ad blockers did so.

Yahoo has even run trials denying people who use ad blockers access to their email.

But publishers and others in the digital advertising industry say that withholding content from people who block ads is unlikely to be successful without offering a carrot: serving better, less intrusive marketing messages and letting people pay to access content in other ways.

“The theory of just guilting someone into ‘white listing’ the ad [exempting it from being blocked] does not work,” says Sourcepoint’s Mr Kane. Instead, he says publishers should try offering readers the ability to buy access to a single article, a day pass to the website or a full subscription, as well as the option of switching off their ad blocker.

“The user can choose to have their content consumption subsidised by advertising or they can choose to make direct payment to the publication,” says Ben Barokas, Sourcepoint’s other co-founder and chief executive.

“But I think the imposition of the browser in dictating a particular percentage [of revenue] upfront without any input from the other parties is a bit draconian,” he adds.

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