Welcome to the new struggle for online content survival. Just a week or so after the Wall Street Journal began to experiment with closing off its search engine paywall bypass, and the Telegraph started blocking ad-block users from reading its content, now Wired has announced it’s going to start blocking ad-blocker users from accessing Wired.
This isn’t the first time that a Condé Nast publication has tried getting all Condé Nasty with ad-block users. A while back, fellow CN publication Ars Technica tried blocking ad-blockers for twelve hours just to make a point, and its editor-in-chief Ken Fisher had a lot to say about ad-blockers and site reformatters like Readability or Safari’s Reader mode. It seems that now, Wired is ready to go to war in its turn, given that 20% of its daily visitors use ad-blocking and it’s starting to feel the financial pinch. To read Wired, readers will either have to whitelist Wired in their ad-blocker, or else pay $1 a week to subscribe to Wired ad-free. Wired promises that it will try to make the ads as annoyance-free as possible. (Of course, Forbes claimed something similar, and then it served up trojans twice last year.)
It remains to be seen just how successful this war will be. I’m blocking ads on most sites but am still able to read The Telegraph and Forbes just fine, possibly thanks to an anti-anti-adblocking Greasemonkey script I use. I expect it will work just as well for Wired, too. Now, granted, many readers may not even realize that anti-anti-adblocking technology is out there—but then again, we live in a world where many readers are so crazy about ease-of-use and averse to any even slightly-complicated procedure that they won’t buy their e-books anywhere except Amazon, yet thousands and thousands of them have found it worth their time to figure out how to block ads. I have little doubt many of them will figure out how to block anti-ad-blocking tech, too, if only just to spite the publishers that attempt to cut them off for it. And many of the ones who don’t will just stop reading the site that attempted to blackmail them.
When you get right down to it, sites can only tell whether your computer loads the ads. They can’t tell whether you actually read them, or are even able to see them at all. So if nothing else, someone will just come up with a way to make the browser dutifully download every ad, but just not execute or display them. It won’t save as much bandwidth as blocking them at the source will, but it should at least cut down on reader annoyance. As long as people’s personal computers are unfettered Turing machines that they (or clever programmers) can program to do anything, this is going to be an arms race that the publishers just can’t win in the long run.
Unless, of course, advertisers and publishers come to their senses and cut way back on the annoying ads—but then again, by this point the cry of “wolf” has gone out through 200-decibel loudspeakers. Even if the publishers’ idea of an “ad-light” experience matched what readers wanted, far too many readers have simply gotten too fed up with any advertising at all by this point to permit it to sully their computers unless they’re practically forced into it at gunpoint.
Even leaving aside the issue of annoying flashy distractions, when even a major site like Forbes is unable to keep malware from using its advertisements as a conduit to infect readers’ computers (twice!), blocking ads is simply something you do to keep your computer safe, right along with installing good anti-virus software.
And there’s no sign that the advertisers, for their part, are ready to back down either. Witness the recent kerfuffle when Adblock Plus, purveyor of “acceptable ads,” tried to register for and attend an advertisers’ convention but had its registration canceled because advertisers found the idea of trying to be nicer about ads (and pay Adblock Plus’s danegeld) to be not acceptable at all.
Meanwhile, Google just reversed itself on a decision it made last week to pull a mobile ad-blocker, Adblock Fast, from the Play Store. Google claims it’s strictly because it doesn’t permit apps that interfere with the functionality of other apps, and it had believed Adblock Fast to be such an app but was apparently mistaken—but on the other hand, it pulled the app soon after Samsung started advertising it as a reason to buy its Android products rather than someone else’s, and reinstated it after loud complaints from all quarters about the decision. Google made $74.5 billion in online advertising revenue last year, so it has incentive to restrict ad-blockers if anybody does. If Google can be browbeaten into restoring an ad-blocker to its store, what chance does anyone else have?
The arms race might go on, but the publishers and advertisers won’t be able to win it by forbidding ad-blocker use. They might try, but they’ll never make it stick. In the long run, publishers are either going to have to do a lot of cleaning up their act, or else find some way to survive and continue to publish that isn’t contingent on forcing people to view ads or pay a subscription fee.
(Found via Slashdot.)