A Way to Peace in the Adblock War

Here is what ad blocking looks like in the physical world:


What we want to block in the online world is the same thing, only here it’s called adtech.

Like junk mail, adtech —

  • wants to get personal,
  • is data-driven,
  • is based on as much tracking as possible,
  • wants to follow you around (thats called “retargeting”)
  • mistakes tolerance for approval,
  • clogs distribution pipes,
  • is mostly litter,
  • cheapens its environment, and
  • wastes time and space in our lives.

Worse, adtech is also a vector for malware and fraud. That’s because the supply chain for adtech could include any of the following things you’ve probably never heard of, and which together turn adtech into a four-dimensional shell game:

  • Trading desks
  • SSPs (Supply Side Platforms)
  • DSPs (Demand Side Platforms)
  • Ad exchanges
  • RTB (real time bidding) and other auctions
  • Retargeters
  • DMPs (Data Management Platforms)
  • Tag managers
  • Tata aggregators
  • Brokers
  • Resellers
  • Media management systems
  • Ad servers
  • Gamifiers
  • Real time messagers
  • Social tool makers

And those are just a few I’ve gathered by hearing adtech talk to itself. Ask any publisher to tell you exactly where any adtech-placed ad came from, and they won’t know. Refresh the page and chances are that other ads will appear in the same spaces, fed down through that four-dimensional matrix of possibilities.

Want to opt out? The Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) wants you to click on a little Ad Choices button (placed in a corner of one of the minority of ads in which they appear), and then go through a series of clicks after that. And that’s only for a few participating companies.  Ghostery has a much longer opt-out list. Go there and see how many times you need to hit Page Down before you reach the bottom. Yes, the adtech business is that huge.

And there’s no easy way to know if any of these companies respected your wishes.

In marketing lingo, adtech is a form of direct response marketing, which is descended  from the direct (aka junk) mail business, not from Madison Avenue.

The difference is critical, because what we really need to block is  adtech, not all of advertising.

The baby in the adblocking bathwater is Madison Avenue, which has paid for nearly everything on newsstands, radio and TV since their beginnings. Even if we didn’t like ads fattening our magazines and interrupting our shows, we knew the economic role they played, and we appreciated their best work.

Here are three other good things about Madison Avenue advertising:

  1. It isn’t personal.
  2. It isn’t based on tracking you.
  3. You know where it comes from.

In one simple word, it’s safe. You may not like it, but you don’t have to worry about it.

The simplest way to end to the adblock war is for non-tracking-based ads — the safe Madison Avenue kind — to carry a marker* that ad  blockers can whitelist. I also recommended this in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.

(Adblock Plus, the most popular ad blocker for Web browsers, has an “acceptable ads manifesto” and a whitelist. While that seems a worthy effort, there are two problems with it:

  1. It doesn’t make a sharp distinction between tracking and non-tracking based ads.
  2. Adblock Plus reportedly gets paid by Google for whitelisting “acceptable” ads, meaning that Adblock Plus is actually in the advertising business itself. (Sources: TechCrunch, Hacker News. Are those ads are aimed by tracking? Presumably.)

I also suggest that ad blockers call themselves adtech blockers, so it’s clear that the user’s problem is with the online equivalent of junk mail, and not with the kind of advertising that has supported commercial media for the duration.

As for people who want to be tracked, we’ll need an opt-in way provided by standards and code from .orgs on the individual’s side. But for now, let’s fix advertising by fixing ad blocking, and end this “war” that never should have happened.

At ProjectVRM we approve of ad and tracking blockers, because they meet the first requirement of VRM tools: they give us independence. They also give us agency: the power to act with effect in the world. That’s why we list many here on the VRM developments list.

The second requirement of VRM tools is engagement. So far, ad and tracking blockers don’t engage. They just block (or filter, such as with the EFF‘s Privacy Badger).

Some on the advertising side want to engage, and not to fight. In Dear Adblocking community, we need to talk, Chris Pedigo of Digital Content Next recognizes the legitimacy of ad blocking in response to bad acting by his industry, and outlines some good stuff they can do.

But they also need to see that it’s no longer up to just them. It’s up to us: the individual targets of advertising.

The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store. That’s the next VRM challenge here.

Finally, for those who want to block all advertising, it’s cool that you’ve got the tools you want already. I’m sure they’ll get better too. Just bear in mind that there’s a difference between the ads that have sponsored publishing and broadcasting for the duration, and the junky stuff that has taught us to hate all advertising online, and created the market for ad blockers in the process.

*I don’t care who comes up with this, as long as it’s open source and everybody can adopt and/or respect it.



  1. Cathal

    “AdSafe” was/is an attempt to allow dynamic ads tye ability to run JS (which allows rich-media and even direct user interactions) without letting the ads inject arbitrary code into the browser window context. Clever stuff.

    It doesn’t solve tracking though, because there are so, so many vectors for tracking. The worst offender is third-party cookies, almost exclusively used for tracking. And, perplexingly, enabled by default in all browsers, even those NOT made by companies that directly profit from advertisement/spying.

    Disabling 3rd party cookies and offering a W3C standard for context-scoped HTML/JS would go a very long way to eliminating evil tracking while enabling safe and benign advertisement.

    I think it may be too far gone for that though, and that a new model for ffunding production is much needed. The pieces are there for and decentralised and peer-production focused way of paying for the web: waystones on this route include(d): flattr, gittip/gratipay, patreon, bitcoin. How long until we “charge” our browsers with Bitcoin and auto-allocate €10/month to our bookmarks list?

  2. Petar Bogdanov

    Even I work in digital marketing I can’t imagine using the Internet without an adblock software. Advertisers need to modify how they serve ads to consumers before starting to accuse adblock start-ups for the recent boom in consumers using such programs.

  3. Valentine

    What about bandwidth?
    As far as I know, I pay for it when ads are downloaded along with the page. A lot of people are using the Internet from their mobile device with limited bandwidth and data caps, and that number will be growing.

    Recently, I tried an radio app, it had ads, it’s ok, most are non intrusive. Spent one full minute before starting my radio stream, because it was downloading a video ad! I uninstalled the app and rated it accordingly 1*, though I’m fully aware the app bore only half the blame.

    • Doc Searls

      Good point, Valentine.

      The measure the mobile carriers use is data usage. I’d like to know what % of the data I use when I visit The Verge or the Washington Post is the intrusive stuff.

  4. Walter

    >I’d like to know what % of the data I use when I visit The Verge or the Washington Post is the intrusive stuff.

    At least 90% of the data transferred when you visit The Verge is for abusive adtech garbage.

    This guy tested it: http://blog.lmorchard.com/2015/07/22/the-verge-web-sucks/

    For an article consisting of 75 KB of HTML, The Verge’s mobile site “fetched over 9.5MB across 263 HTTP requests”. If you add up all the arguably necessary css, js, and image files needed to make the site look good, that’s 1.4MB, so 8+ MB is adtech junk. And really, the 75 KB of HTML is probably all you really care about, especially on mobile, so the adtech uses 100x more data than the actual content you wanted to see.

  5. Doc Searls

    Thanks, Walter. Good catch.

    “This guy” is Les Orchard, a developer who deeply knows his shit. I just added an excerpt from that piece to Debugging adtech assumptions, over on my blog.

  6. the head lemur

    The biggest impediment to safe surfing and publisher survival are the publishers themselves. They are the ones that buy into the adtech bullshit. Once they bring the advertiser management back in house, and wrap ads in links that bring folks to the advertisers sites, will we begin to normalize the relationship between viewers and companies.

    This also helps companies in seeing if the their advertising agencies are making an impact toward the bottom line, which is what advertising role is.

    Attempting to use a cost/benefit argument for their choice is disingenuous in the least and dishonest and corrupt on the other side.

    Every web server logs every request for all the HTML that goes into a web page displayed on your screen. Log-file analyzers have been part of the web since the first websites. They can manage ad placement in house and have an accurate count for the billing department.

    The ”cookies must be enabled to use our site ” is bullshit of yet another kind. If I choose not to use them, am I seeing the same content as everybody else? Are being penalized for not being groped by some third party?

    Even Here the tracking goes on…
    Disconnect reports 7 trackers
    Ghostery reports 5 trackers

    Publishers need to take responsibility and clean up their act.

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