While many media outlets hope that web advertising will provide a much-needed new revenue source, web users have already found a way to nullify ads' value - by making them invisible. C-Net's Declan McCullagh explains that new ad-blocking plug-ins raise serious problems for websites and maybe even legal issues for those who use the software.
BOB GARFIELD: With the end of the TimesSelect experiment, the paper would seem to be placing more and more importance on web advertising. While still only a minor fraction of advertising budgets, many believe it will someday be the cure for all of those ailing news outlets we're always talking about.
But that remedy hinges on one pretty basic assumption - that web users can actually see the ads. New software, most notably Adblock Plus, a free plug-in for the Firefox Web browser, makes virtually all ads on your screen disappear.
When we huddled around an office computer checking it out, our staff gasped as webpages loaded seamlessly, not just with no ads but with no indication that the ads were ever there in the first place.
The plug-ins work on most every site, from The New York Times to NPR to C-Net, where Declan McCullagh wrote about this issue. Declan, welcome back to On the Media. DECLAN McCULLAGH: My pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: There have been many, many surveys done which suggest that users, especially young users, believe not just that spam is spam but that all advertising is spam and they have the right to delete it. DECLAN McCULLAGH: I think among some of the younger crowd there is this idea that advertisements somehow really ruin the web browsing experience and that they also slow down the web browsing experience because your computer has to send a separate connection to download that ad. And if it's a video ad or a Flash ad, it can actually take some time. BOB GARFIELD: Apart from consumer desires and, you know, system utility, this also raises a couple of legal questions. When you sign on to use a website, in many cases you as a user actually agree not to interfere with the advertising process. DECLAN McCULLAGH: That's right. Now, certainly not all websites do this, but myspace.com does. The Chicago Sun Times does. Other news organizations do. And those terms of service agreements tend to say you can't do anything that blocks or covers our advertisements.
And the second legal theory that anyone bringing suit against the ad blockers would use is one that says you can't create derivative works by blocking our ads and essentially modifying our content. This is what the entertainment industry used in the late 1970s in this lawsuit against the VCR. And the trial judge considered it but rejected it, saying that, well, only 25 percent of VCR owners fast-forward through commercials and so on.
But what's interesting is that it was based on the state-of-the-art technology at the time, and what happens if 95 percent of people did? And so there are some more recent legal opinions suggesting that courts might go the other way if that question were presented to them today. BOB GARFIELD: Well, let's just say that everybody who is using ad-blocking software is committing a tiny, tiny, tiny little financial crime. What about the manufacturer of the ad blocker software? Is there any legal liability attendant to giving me the tools with which to commit the crime? DECLAN McCULLAGH: [LAUGHS] Unlike burglary tools, this is computer code, and computer code is what someone has written, and so there's a First Amendment analysis there. But I can see some court saying, you know, sorry, this is designed for one and only one thing, and that's to block ads, and it may not be that appropriate.
The problem is this software is out there on servers all over the world, and so there's not much in practice they can do. So it's probably a better dispute to be resolved by technology. The website detects the ads aren't being shown. Well, then you don't see the content. BOB GARFIELD: Well, you raise an interesting point. Can websites eventually defeat the ad-blocking software? DECLAN McCULLAGH: Right now websites have not taken steps to either detect the ad blockers or to thwart the ad blockers, but it is possible. I mean, one thing that you can do is instead of serving ads from a domain called Doubleclick.net, which is very popular and very easy to block, you can instead serve them from the organization's own website. And so that's going to be more tricky for ad blockers to block.
Maybe they can come up with a countermeasure and maybe the web publisher can come up with a counter-countermeasure. And so I see that sort of technological arms race as being at least as important as the legal question. BOB GARFIELD: Well, you know, there's, I think, a more basic question, which is that if you're using an Internet site and the site is dependent on advertising for its revenue and you obliterate the advertising, isn't that sort of stealing? DECLAN McCULLAGH: It's very close to it. There is a slight additional incremental cost every time someone connects to a website. It's a small amount of money, but when you have millions of people - and this is the case today - using ad blocking software can add up. So you're essentially trying to get something for nothing.
And the morality of that seems a little squirrelly. I mean, if you don't want to see ads, maybe a better way to do it would be paid ad-free versions. Another way to do it would be to say - here's an ad, I'm going to wait 30 seconds before giving you the content.
News.com has a relationship with Lexus. I mean, they brand a certain portion of our website. And it's very difficult to block that sort of branding and it's also probably less intrusive.
Otherwise, right now, if you want the website content, then you have to look at the ads. You're getting it for free? Don't complain. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Declan, I just want to point out that this conversation will be on the air and also on our podcast, which, of course, is subsidized by underwriters, and there is no way in the world, if you download our podcast, to obliterate [LAUGHS] that message. [MCCULLAGH LAUGHS] Declan, I appreciate your help. DECLAN McCULLAGH: [LAUGHS] My pleasure. Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Declan McCullagh is chief political correspondent for C-Net News. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]