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Media mafiosos: Is Adblock Plus shaking down websites for cash to let ads through?

 Adblock Plus Shake Down
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In 2006, Adblock Plus 0.6 was released as a browser extension that promised to keep users’ Web experience uncluttered and advertising-free. As the Internet became overrun with auto-play videos, overflowing page margins, and impossible-to-close pop-ups, Adblock Plus was viewed as a godsend by millions – more than 200 million of them at last count. But, a little over two years ago, the company behind the software did something that seemed to make no sense: they began showing ads. 

Adblock Plus’ open source, community-driven policies earned it a loyal and vocal user base. When it launched its Acceptable Ads initiative in December of 2011, users were outraged that Adblock Plus would begin selectively pushing ads through its own filters, and eyebrows were raised when it was learned that the new feature would be “opt out,” requiring people to dig into their settings to disable it and return to the ad-free environment they downloaded Adblocker Plus for in the first place. 

Company president Wladimir Palant claimed that the initiative was in line with Adblocker Plus’ core function: to improve the overall Web experience. What that meant was they were pivoting from a company that provided tools to block annoying ads and toward a company that would become an arbiter of what was – and was not – acceptable advertising. 

“They’re basically charging us for our own content.”

Now, according to a source who works for a major online publisher (and would only speak on the condition of anonymity), Adblock Plus approached the company and offered to push ads through the extension’s filters in exchange for a third of the profits generated by the advertising. Put another way, Adblock Plus allegedly will allow its definition of acceptable advertising to be determined by a dollar amount.

“Their pitch is that you’ll increase your revenue with little to no monetary investment,” our source says. “They’re basically charging us for our own content.”

To illustrate how aggressive Adblock Plus is being in its pursuit of this revenue stream, the source claims that the company initially demanded a flat fee, paid in advance quarterly, in exchange for the media company’s ads being displayed. 

Adblock Plus maintains that the Acceptable Ads initiative is well intentioned. There are more than a few websites that would lose their ability to operate if ads were blocked entirely, and Adblock Plus’ position as the most-used ad blocking application out there puts it in the position of gatekeeper. The company also believes it can help improve Web advertising overall. 

“So far only a few websites have been included [as part of Acceptable Ads] and we have not yet worked out all details and criteria,” co-founder Till Faida tells us, while also mentioning the program is still in a beta phase. “We are trying to incorporate feedback from our users, but also websites, ad agencies, and advertisers to create rules for a compromise that works for everyone. As you can imagine, this is a very ambitious goal and a work in progress.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Adblock Plus refers to companies participating in Acceptable Ads as “whitelisted,” and Faida says that publishers can apply for the whitelist or be submitted by the community, and that it’s intended to help smaller websites, not large ones. If larger sites apply or are submitted, Adblock Plus will figure out away to allow them to “contribute.”

“We will work out on a case-by-base basis how [larger outlets] can contribute to our project,” he says. “There is not a fixed pricing system.” He stressed that no one can just pay to be whitelisted. 

Adblocker Plus has some high profile advocates, including Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

“If you think about it, everything about the Internet has been evolving – except for ads,” Ohanian says. “We deserve better. I like that [Adblocker Plus] exists because it puts an onus on publishers to be a little bit more tasteful with the ads that they run, but also to think about alternative business models … especially at a time when publishers are having a hard time keeping the lights on.”

When told of our source’s accusations of Adblocker Plus’ pricing tactics, Ohanian said he hadn’t heard of any such behavior but that, “It would make me a sad panda,” if it were true. Ohanian expressed some reservation about the Acceptable Ads initiative, admitting that it sounds a bit like filtering the Internet – a topic he recently spent a keynote addressing during Social Media Week in New York. 

As fate would have it, Reddit was recently added to the Adblock Plus “whitelist” – a significant move for the ad blocker, given the fact that Reddit’s audience is largely tech-aware users who appear to buy into what the Acceptable Ads initiative is all about. 

“Our users can now opt to support websites that rely on advertising, but that choose to do it in a non-obtrusive way,” Faida said about the Reddit whitelisting. “This not only rewards responsible advertisers, but encourages them. This is exactly the choice that users have made with Reddit’s site and we’re very excited that Reddit has shown a deep commitment to making its site safe with responsible ads.”

“[Adblock Plus] is stealing from the rich and giving to the poor – and it’s a very one-sided conversation with them.”

When asked about the accusation our source made against Adblock Plus, Faida didn’t deny the charge; he reiterated how the program runs on a system of checks and balances. He says that sites can apply for whitelist status, and the Adblock Plus community has a review process in which members are encouraged to participate. When a large outlet applies, it’s dealt with on a case by case basis to determine how much they will “contribute,” as Faida’s previously said, to the project. 

“Whitelisting is free for small websites, blogs, and editorial content providers,” Faida says. “However, the initiative was not intended to maximize revenues for large companies, that’s why those [large companies] are contributing to the costs it takes to run Acceptable Ads (it requires significant resources and it is in their strategic interest to make the initiative sustainable).”

Of course, according to our source, it was Adblock Plus that sought their business, not the other way around. As our source put it, “[Adblock Plus] is stealing from the rich and giving to the poor – and it’s a very one-sided conversation with them. Basically, they set the terms and it’s a take it or leave it offer.” 

Faida insists that his company’s policies are transparent. “While some companies are contributing to the Acceptable Ads effort, nobody can just pay to get ads whitelisted,” he says. “Before a website gets unblocked, it has to go through a community approval process which ensures a maximum transparency.”

You can see here that community approval process in action. Clearly, members of the Adblock Plus forums (the site says there are “over 100 frequent forum members”) are looking at the proposals for whitelisting sites. The views on each are rather high, although all discussion seems to be divisive. In the thread dedicated to debating whitelisting Reddit, for example, many members voice their complaints about how Adblock Plus is setting itself up to play Internet ad judge.

The criticisms of the project – and the accusation that Adblock Plus’ pricing is neither negotiated nor consensual – speak to the great risks of this system. While the service’s aim is to hold Internet ads to a certain standard, the questions about where this authority comes from and how it’s being used have to be asked. 

… the loudest cries are starting to come from the media companies forced to reckon with yet another gatekeeper …

Faida believes that his users will inherently hold Adblocker Plus accountable. “The success of our initiative is dependent on the support of our contributors who believe in our vision to have a positive impact on online advertising,” he says. “Financial interest will never be more important than that. If we lose credibility, users will just disable the Acceptable Ads functionality or look for a different ad blocker. Then our efforts to find a reasonable compromise will have failed, and ad blocking will eventually be destructive for the free Internet.”

That may well be the case, but Adblock Plus’ users aren’t the ones leveling claims of a unfair pricing and aggressive tactics (although, to be fair, you just have to browse the Adbock Plus forums to see the signs of users’ intense frustration with the Acceptable Ads program). But the loudest cries are starting to come from the media companies forced to reckon with yet another gatekeeper in the digital media marketplace – companies that don’t have the same leverage Adblock Plus’ users do.

As discouraging as the accusation that Adblock Plus could be extorting the position its millions of users put it in, the situation isn’t hopeless, and it may be evolving. “They’ve had to tread through this market, lay a lot of foundation, do a lot of ground work,” Ohanian remarks. “The next iteration of tools coming forward like this can learn from their experiences.”

Molly McHugh
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Before coming to Digital Trends, Molly worked as a freelance writer, occasional photographer, and general technical lackey…
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