Before Adblock Plus bloomed into existence in 2006, going anywhere online could be a flashing, ad-filled nightmare. Adblock Plus offered a way out of the commercial chaos, and blocked ad revenue from websites in the process. But now it's opening up the gates — and allowing a few choice advertisers through, for a price.
Adblock Plus wasn't the only software that popped up to block pop-ups and banner adds from assaulting your eyes. Adblock — which is actually completely separate from Adblock Plus — and dozens of smaller forked versions will all scrub the internet clean for you. And do! Last year an estimated 144 million people were using ad-blocking software in some way, and Adblock Plus says it currently has around 60 million active users and about 300 million downloads in the last nine years.
But Adblock Plus — one of the biggest of the bunch — has been doing more than just that. It actually lets certain ads through its browser-based blockade, ones that are "good". Earlier this week, Ars Technica reported that 300 businesses are "whitelisted" on AdBlock Plus, for ads that are ostensibly non-offensive. That's put AdBlock in something of a position of power, one where Google, Amazon and Microsoft are ponying up to get on its good side.
The widespread appeal of an ad-free internet
Five years after Adblock Plus was born, Eyeo, the company behind Adblock Plus, developed the Acceptable Ads initiative — a whitelist of ads that are OK and unobtrusive enough to be let through the filter, according to Eyeo's standards. The goal was to find an amicable middle ground between the internet readers drowning in ads and the companies that subsist on the revenue. So today, when you download Adblock Plus, the whitelist feature is turned on by default. You still have the choice to turn all ads off completely or even develop your own individual list of approved sites.
Great, right? Sure! But it isn't quite that simple, of course. The initiative became intwined with Adblock Plus' otherwise mostly donation-based business model; small and medium-sized websites and blogs (whatever that actually means) could have ads whitelisted free-of-charge, but "big" companies would have to pony up a fee.
This past weekend, the Financial Times reported that Google, Amazon, and Microsoft reportedly paid out to Eyeo to circumvent the AdBlock Plus gatekeeper. From one angle, Eyeo is asking mega corporations to dish out cash in an effort to keep ABP's lights on, while giving every internet user choice as to how they experience ads online. From another, ABP is just standing between big companies with ads and the websites that run them, asking for money before they will even so much as inch out of the way.
Power to the people?
Ben Williams, an Eyeo spokesperson, says that every company — from the biggest corporation to the tiniest blog — follows the same "whitelisting" process, meaning companies must meticulously follow strict guidelines before being approved by an open source community. Once added to the list — assuming users don't opt-out of seeing non-intrusive ads altogether — whitelisted content slides through AdBlock Plus' filter.
"We look at it as the user-determined internet," Williams told me. "We know the internet started with a lot of control being placed in the users' hands and their browsers, and then ads came along. They were fetching huge prices at first, and then they went down and advertisers got more and more annoying." That the folks who created the tools to block anything and everything are trying to let up before they completely squash the ad-supported internet is admirable. But they're not doing it before getting theirs.
"It's absolutely controversial and we knew that when we started it," Williams says. "Anytime you form a compromise, you're going to get it from both sides...and we did." Williams explains that they have lost some users, and companies accuse them of needing to "pay up just to be put on their list." The Financial Times (paywall) points to a specific instance, one in which Eyeo puts an ad network called Taboola up for whitelisting on its forum, to the immediate protest of its members, who perhaps not wrongly call it one of the worst ones out there.
Eyeo also openly admits that they're kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. In an interview with Computerworld in 2014, primary investor Tim Schumacher says:
Our position is pretty uncomfortable. On the one hand we get a lot of heat from publishers because we take away part of their revenue stream. On the other hand we get a lot of heat from users about Acceptable Ads. We wanted to introduce a least common denominator. In community discussion pretty much everyone agreed that a very strict [textual ads only] standard was something they could live with.
Adblock Plus would have you look at it less like a strong-arming henchman but the mutual best friend standing between online advertisers and beleaguered web users who are about to start a drunken bar fight.
...Or power to the gatekeeper?
So is Adblock Plus a new age ad arbiter? Now more than ever. With big-wigs like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft reportedly paying up, Adblock Plus's whitelist is clearly worth the money to get on. But whether that means a world of better ads, or a world where everyone is whitelisted through Adblock Plus — which takes a cut while things steadily get worse — remains to be seen. Publishers offering content gratis has made it monumentally difficult to go back from free, and ads are a part of that deal.
Would advertising have reached a comfortable equilibrium with websites realising their ads were scaring off readers in droves and finally figuring their shit out without Adblock Plus around? Possibly, but we'll never know. Will it happen with the help of a company whose flagship product is designed to block ads? We'll find out.
There are ways for sites (and users) to avoid the whole mess all together while still supporting the websites they enjoy. There are direct monetary contribution programs in the works, like Google's Contributor. There are paywalls. There's the option for readers to curate their own whitelists, or just simply turn off Adblock.
In the meantime, complete and total blockage of ads is no solution for anyone in the long run, and with its more porous and money-driven wall, Eyeo at least is trying to find a solution that's somewhere between no ads and incessant pop-ups. Still, it's hard to swallow the "we're making the internet a better place" mantra when the company that claims to be doing so is expectantly holding its hand out toward advertisers while simultaneously asking them to play nice.
That contradiction is becoming inherent to how business on the internet works now — just as Google, Microsoft and Amazon have realised.