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The Ethics of Ad Blocking

If you've raged against some of the more pushy ads on the Internet, you should take a look at today's story by my colleague Peter Whoriskey about the people behind a couple of popular ad-blocking tools.

The intersection between somebody's hope to make a living online and somebody else's desire not to be bothered online is one of the oldest conflcts in the Web business -- and one that I'm stuck in the middle of as somebody who both writes and reads on the Web.

Nobody asked for my opinion on that matter, so here it is anyway:

1) You have not only the right, but the obligation, to keep your computer secure. And since a lot of spyware arrives via ads that use browser-hijacking attacks or try to frighten users into installing phony system-repair tools, security reasonably includes some level of ad filtering.

(Note that Whoriskey's story quotes "Rick," the semi-anoymous author of the EasyList ad-blocking database, as saying that he "started it because I was frustrated with getting my computer infected from ads -- malware and spyware and all that stuff.")

2) Beyond that, it's only fair to expect users to find ways around ads that are merely obnoxious. Pop-up ad banners are the classic case of that; they became such a problem that every major browser now blocks them, and most come set to do so by default.

3) But there's also the principle I have summarized as "Don't be a jerk." (Sometimes I use a different noun at the end.) You can't describe any ad, no matter how unobtrusive it might be, as some kind of crime against humanity that entitles you to use extra software to scrub it off your screen. The Web does not exist to serve you alone; you don't get to order everybody else to inform or entertain you for free.

The question then becomes defining what counts as "too obnoxious." And I don't know of a better way to determine that other than seeing how people vote with their keyboards: An ad that makes enough of a nuisance of itself for otherwise tolerant readers to explore ad-blocking software is, in practical terms, on the wrong side of that line. And I'd like to think that Web publishers would avoid running such ads, lest they unwittingly teach their readers to install software that will block not just them but other, less intrusive ads.

It would help if ad-blocking software were not so inflexible and instead invited users to differentiate between different types of ads -- say allowing banners with pictures but blocking those with video, or stopping certain Adobe Flash ads from briefly expanding to fill an entire page. It might help even more if there were some automatic way for these programs to communicate such a thumbs-down vote to a site's management.

What's your definition of "too obnoxious" in a Web ad?

(And now, the obvious disclaimer: I'm not speaking for the paper or this Web site, nor do I have any say in what kind of ads run alongside, above, below or in front of my column or my Web work.)

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 25, 2008; 3:47 PM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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To me, too obnoxious is any ad that talks, flashes, or moves in order to get my attention. I have a tendency to filter ads (using eyes and brain, not software), so I hate ones that are really pushy. Or worse- make a page load slowly!
That being said, I understand the need and use. I would prefer not to have it in my face, just as I'd steer away from street sellers. Newsprint-type (static) ads are fine.

Posted by: KSmith | June 25, 2008 5:46 PM | Report abuse

I have been getting pornographic sponsored web-clips in my Gmail Inbox. (Would you believe they associate "pussy" with "puppy" keywords??) I've just been getting the run-around from Google's Adsense people (since there isn't a direct way to report this to GMail, who just state baldly that ads have to be "Family Safe").

Posted by: Mike | June 25, 2008 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Animations -- any moving pixels, any video -- are what pushed me to full-on ad blocking. I'm reading, and the cognitive distraction from motion on the screen detracts in an intrusive fashion. I would likely put up with static ads, but once the pop-ups were blocked and the advertisers went to animation, it was all over!

Posted by: marcS | June 25, 2008 6:34 PM | Report abuse

Any sites I come across with compelling content that I read on a daily (or a bit less) basis I tend to subscribe to (if that option exists).

Sites should offer an ad-free service for a suggested pay-pal donation and this issue would go away. Give the choice to the reader.

I always use ABP on Firefox and SafarBlock at work.


Posted by: James | June 25, 2008 7:22 PM | Report abuse

What's your definition of "too obnoxious" in a Web ad? The Flash ad that was popping up full-screen while trying to read your column; that one will do. Now with adblock Plus and the Easylist I can read your flipping column without waiting for the ad or trying to find the "skip ad" button. WaPo's server latency is quite enough delay already!

Posted by: Michael H. | June 25, 2008 8:39 PM | Report abuse

I should add that a lot of places put up fullscreen ads that are only relevant to US readers.

I don't mind _relevant_ ad content but too many sites/advertisers are not using site/user information to target ads effectively. Heck, Amazon has 13years of buying information from me, and they still put rubbish up on my "personalized" home page.

Posted by: Mike | June 25, 2008 8:59 PM | Report abuse

If you're a parent of young children living in a very small house or apartment, getting any unexpected noise is unwelcomed in that it may wake up the children. I don't mind ads which have their own real estate off to the side of the page I'm trying to read, but to have dancing, flashing banners scroll all over the page is a different thing altogether. If the advertisers didn't annoy the heck out of us, we wouldn't be so desperate to rid our online time of their ads. The advertisers brought this on themselves, so too bad for them, eh?

Posted by: DrKen | June 25, 2008 9:20 PM | Report abuse

People with seizure disorders and people like myself with a tendency to vertigo are put at risk by some flashing and animated ads. I use an ad-blocker in self-defense. And I really resent aural intrusions. I have a paid account at my blog site to avoid ads, and the site offers free accounts to people who watch ads. This seems fair to me. Newspapers need to form some alliances/coalitions so that people can pay a central newspaper fee for ad free content and not have to pay for every newspaper out there. Then we would have solved the problem. Free with ads, and you can buy into a broad group of papers for a fee to have ad-free viewing.

Posted by: Judith | June 25, 2008 10:31 PM | Report abuse

I too dislike adverts that detract from the main content of the page, I do ask the question; Are you visiting the website for the content or the adverts? Too obnoxious? In opinion yes. Static graphics and reasonable size on a page is acceptable, indeed necessary for the marketing ecosystem.

Posted by: The Painter (UK) | June 26, 2008 12:06 AM | Report abuse

As already mentioned sound and ads that expand to cover content, are out of bounds and deserve to be blocked. I also get really annoyed when I'm waiting for a page to load (generally staring at a header and no content) and the address bar at the bottom indicates that it's the add server slowing things down.

Any content driven company big enough to deal with it (that would definitely include the WaPo) should offer their users the choice to pay for add free content.

Posted by: Norm | June 26, 2008 1:47 AM | Report abuse

What is even more insulting are the ads on Dish network broadcasts-they're encoded so you can't edit them when recording programs to the Dish DVR. Once you've paid for the programming you should be free to do anything that doesn't violate copyright with the signal, including edit commercials. What a rip off for consumers!

Posted by: Paul Corsa | June 26, 2008 8:28 AM | Report abuse

For me an obnoxious ad is any video, anything that flashes, moves, grows to cover the screen, or opens a new tab/window. And anything that noticeably slows down page loading times.

Posted by: EL | June 26, 2008 8:31 AM | Report abuse

Too obnoxious = ads with audio that you can't turn off.

One of my favorite blogs sometimes tells me, out loud, "Congratulations! You have just won two free iPod nanos." Wha... huh? I didn't ask for that to come out of my speakers.

Posted by: James | June 26, 2008 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Also obnoxious...


Washington Post, are you listening?

Posted by: James again | June 26, 2008 8:47 AM | Report abuse

For me, some ads (ads that flash, take up the entire screen or a big chunk of it, automatically play any audio) are always too annoying.
Past that, I am much more willing to put up with ads on a free site -- like this one or my portal -- than on a site I am paying for -- like Comcast webmail. I already pay them a small fortune every month for mediocre service, so I draw the line at Comcast trying to squeeze in an extra penny or two by forcing ads down my throat when I am trying to read my email. I have all ads on that site blocked.

Posted by: Pattie A. | June 26, 2008 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I think:

- any ad I don't want to see is a failure of the advertiser, so if I want to block it I will.
- I don't object to advertising that is relevant and is pushing something I: a) don't know (enough) about, and b) will benefit me.
- text ads are not a big deal, I have no problem with that.

[Google seems to understand all this better than most because they are actively trying to figure out what ads are most relevant to the viewer, then displaying them unobtrusively. What I can't stand are the flash-based "punch the monkey" or whatever games!]

- if a site that's run on ad revenue is concerned about this, it should offer an avenue to encourage its users to support the site through donations. Guilt trip the ad-blocking folks into contributing. It's like listening to public radio--you're choosing to listen to a station without commercials so it becomes your responsibility to support it. In this age of PayPal it would be easy to have a site stop a user who's blocking its ads and ask her for a $2 PayPal donation to cover the lost ad revenue. If she pays, push a cookie onto her computer and don't bug her for another month or two. If she doesn't want to pay, she can just disable her ad blocker.
- ads are part of the larger issue of computer-based distractions that plague modern computing. With constant popups like "there are unused icons on your desktop," "Adobe Flash Player needs your attention," "You have new email," etc. an ad is nothing more than another distraction while you're trying to get something done. There HAS to be a better way...

Posted by: BR | June 26, 2008 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Does EasyList work with Internet Explorer?

Posted by: buddye | June 26, 2008 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Any ad is over the line when:
1) it interrupts the user's operation or requires any action of the user to hide (pop-ups, for example)
2) it -by default- makes noise or video that would be distracting in an office or public setting. If you want to make video and pop-up ads, label them as such and let the user click on the button to start it!
3) any advertisement that is scripted to gather, measure, read, install, or otherwise interface with a user's computer. An ad should push, not pull information. There MUST be a "submit" button if information is to be gathered from the user, and the user must know exactly what is being sent.
4) it's hidden in content. Ads should be to the side, clearly labelled as sponsored content. There is no excuse to interrupt an informative article with ad rubbish in the middle of it.

Posted by: Andy | June 26, 2008 11:31 AM | Report abuse

My company's revenue base is largely from advertising -- print, and now online. So given that my paycheck comes out of it, I'm pretty tolerant of ads.

I dislike (as many other have said) those ads that roll out over the page, where you have to click or wait to continue reading.

I dislike interstitials -- where you click to read an article, and then get sent to a page with a big ad on it and a "continue to article" link.

I really hate those mortgage ads with the dancing people. I can ignore most moving ads, but those are just too distracting. It's something about the repeating pattern of the dance that my brain is compelled to fixate on and analyze. And I don't need a mortgage.

I don't mind video ads if they are muted by default. If the ad looks interesting, I will click and watch it.

What I do like is ads that are relevant to me. I understand that relevance is hard to define for mail sites like Yahoo Mail and Hotmail, so I get all kinds of random crap. Ads on newspaper sites tend to be better, but the best are the small niches. I read a lot of webcomics, and the ads there are mostly relevant to me -- in fact I've discovered a lot of cool things that way.

Done right, advertising is effective without being intrusive. But it's rarely done right.

Posted by: Tony | June 26, 2008 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Categories? Not worth the time. Anything that isn't a static text ad (Adsense) is too much.

If there's anything that publishers and advertisers have proven, it's that they have no self control - they will annoy, flash, scream, pop up, manipulate, and anything else they can do to get a click. It may not be a "crime against humanity", but it's my computer, and I have the right to accept/reject anything I want. The extent of your right to show me ads ends with the ad network include code on your public web server, and if it doesn't make it to my screen, that's MY CHOICE.

Posted by: hoq | June 26, 2008 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Any ad based on Adobe Flash. They are almost all seriously annoying, and Flash is chock full of Security flaws. By default I disable Flash in IE, and only turn it on if I have to visit a site that requires it. And I really have to want to go there!

You should all give this a try. You'd be shocked at how much more peaceful the Flash-Free web can be. All of the annoying video ads are usually substituted with an static image that is more easily ignored.

Posted by: Fred | June 26, 2008 8:43 PM | Report abuse

For malware, as for your home, I submit that it is your DUTY to keep a clean house, so the vermin will not be encouraged to spread.

As for obtrusive ads, it is up to the advertiser to be smart enough to know I will never buy a product whose Flash ads steal so many CPU cycles that I cannot get my work done. Like those corner-peel-back ads.

Posted by: Eirík Þorvaldsson | June 27, 2008 2:17 AM | Report abuse

I'm a little leary of targeted advertising. Text ads related to the website's content I'm viewing -- okay. Text ads relevant to a search I'm running -- even better. But ads for vacation hot spots while I'm researching the Holocaust -- bad idea.

Posted by: EL | June 27, 2008 10:18 AM | Report abuse

To clarify, I should have said, "But ads for vacation hot spots (from a previous search) while I'm now researching the Holocaust -- bad idea.

Posted by: EL | June 27, 2008 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Rob, I think there ought to be a standard reference list of forbidden features which website owners can use to "vet" ads. The guideline could include things like:
1) Animation more than ten seconds long (put a button saying "see more of this" on it)
2) Audio automatically turned on at start of add (put a button on it to allow people to opt-in to listen!)
3) Expanding content without clicking on the ad
4) Bright flashing colors (risk to epileptics, if I recall correctly)
5) Sexual content (dammit, my kids use this computer and one of 'em's too young to handle overtly sexual advertising!)

An ad which does not violate these rules (and others as determined by the online communities) ought not to be blocked. I realize I'm still going to get countless ads from realtors, drug manufacturers, subprime lenders, and what have you. But they wouldn't be nearly as offensive if they followed guidelines something like this.

Posted by: Phil S. | June 27, 2008 11:13 AM | Report abuse

When ISP's begin capping band width or start charging us by the bit, everyone will be using

Posted by: John Schultz | June 29, 2008 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I only skimmed the previous responses, but I think I am the first to mention here that Firefox's AdBlock extension allows users to filter ads on an ad by ad or server by server basis -- or anything in between. AdBlock is indispensible to my websurfing sanity.

Posted by: amb141 | June 29, 2008 4:04 PM | Report abuse

How would we know that Bush, Clinton and Obama all have iq's of 125?

Doesn't the WP have fact checkers for these annoyances? The Bush one is particularly obnoxious in that the movement is jittery almost as bad as flashing.

Posted by: without ads | June 30, 2008 1:04 PM | Report abuse

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