Toll, Please

Jack Marshall, Wall Street Journal:

There is money to be made blocking ads and, as it turns out, allowing ads to evade ad blockers. Eyeo GmbH, the company behind popular desktop ad-blocking tool Adblock Plus, now accepts payment from around 70 companies in exchange for letting their ads through its filter. Eyeo stipulates that they must comply with its “acceptable ads” policy, meaning their ads aren’t too disruptive or intrusive to users. In total, ads from some 700 companies meet the acceptable ads policy, an Eyeo spokesman said.

Eyeo is now reaching out to developers of other ad-blocking tools to cut deals that allow certain ads to pass ads through their filters, too, in exchange for payment.

[Crystal developer Dean] Murphy said he has taken Eyeo up on its offer, and plans to implement an option within his app whereby “acceptable” ads will be displayed to users. The feature will be switched on by default, Mr. Murphy said, and he will receive a flat monthly fee from Eyeo in return. Mr. Murphy declined to disclose the fee, but said he expects to make less money from Eyeo’s payments than from sales of the app itself.

I think it’s a little bit weird that this decision has created such a controversy. The most logical consensus seems to be that most people want to block web crap: trackers, page-covering ads, interstitials, dumb copy-and-paste modifications, and the like. But there are plenty of ads that are unobtrusive and don’t kill your smartphone’s data plan, and these ads help support publishers of all sizes. If there were a way to block the worst of the web crap while allowing unobtrusive ads through, thereby supporting publishers, isn’t that a good thing?

I get that it feels uncomfortable or unfair for Murphy to charge users for an app billed as an ad blocker, while also receiving indirect payment from the ad industry for letting some ads through. I think that Murphy should be compensated for his work in building the blocker in the first place, but I’m not so certain that it’s fair to charge ad networks for inclusion on a whitelist.1 Big networks will be the ones that can afford it, but they’re also the most worrying from a privacy standpoint; smaller networks likely won’t be able to afford the toll, so publications that rely upon them will have a much rockier ride ahead, as will publishers that run their own ads.

Perhaps this would be less of an issue if Murphy — or Eyeo — didn’t receive compensation for whitelisted ads. It is, after all, still optional — if you want a full ad blocker, you’ll be able to flip a switch to turn off the whitelist. But I see no issue with an app that can run in a mode that’s more like an ad filter rather than an ad blocker.

Update: Dean Murphy has clarified his decision in a blog post. One of the things I got wrong is my impression that advertisers pay a fee to be included in Eyeo’s whitelist. That’s not always true:

…Around 90% of websites on the Eyeo Acceptable Ads whitelist do not pay a fee to be included, only the absolute largest companies pay for inclusion, assuming they meet the criteria of course. In turn, this allows for better ads that meets the criteria to be displayed.

My assessment that this toll creates a negative environment for smaller networks and publishers isn’t accurate, but this is good news.

Less good are the so-called “Acceptable Ads” on Eyeo’s whitelist. While Eyeo prohibits the most irritating advertising behaviour, they don’t say anything about trackers. If we use the AdBlock Plus exception list as a rough guide, we can see several instances of trackers, beacons, and similar scripts.

Samantha Bielefeld also interviewed Dean Murphy:

Samantha: I would have liked to see you retain control over every aspect of the app’s operation. Was there a reason, besides possibly a financial one, that you didn’t?

Dean: The main reason – I don’t possess the resources necessary to hand pick, and arbitrate what ads are acceptable. It would require making sure they meet a certain criteria, and I would have to then monitor the ads in order to ensure that standards had been met. It would also require me to form business relationships with advertising networks, etc. It would be a massive time sink and would involve a hell of a lot of work that would distract me from everything else.

This makes sense to me. I don’t see this as a major issue, and I’m a bit surprised at the kind of outrage it generated. This feature is optional, good for publishers, and makes the ad industry more aware of what’s tolerable.

  1. It doesn’t help that the Acceptable Ads crew isn’t open about what networks have paid to be included. ↥︎