Geek On The Hill

Adblock and the Slow Death of the Free Web

I’m a bit of a newshound. I like starting my days by reading the local, national, and world news. Back in olden times, I’d do this by spreading out a newspaper or two on the table while I drank my coffee. But in the late 1990’s, like many other people, I started trading the dead trees for electrons. It was more environmentally sound, and at least for me, it was also free.

Digital news was paid for by advertising. That’s actually how dead-tree news was paid for, too. The money paid to the newsstand or the paper boy in the dead-tree era mainly paid for the printing and distribution of the physical newspapers. The content was overwhelmingly paid for by advertising. It was an ages-old system that had served journalism well for many, many years; and considering the negligible cost of distributing news over the Web, it was an even better match for digital news.

That worked well until about five or ten years ago, when newspaper sites started realizing that a growing number of users were blocking ads. The number of visitors using ad blockers was trivial in the beginning, but it’s grown rapidly. Some sources suggest that as many as half of all Internet users routinely block ads at the time of this writing.

This presents an existential problem for Web publishers. Blocking ads means lost revenue; and without revenue, publishers can’t pay the bills. Many sites countered by using various techniques to beg or force users to allow their ads by “whitelisting” their sites. In the beginning, these attempts took the form of polite requests; but when that didn’t work, more and more sites implemented measures that essentially forced visitors to allow ads if they wanted to view the sites.

The problem is that there’s a hardcore group of people who use ad blockers who simply refuse to view a site with ads. If they can’t figure out a way to circumvent the ad blocker blockers, they simply won’t visit that site anymore. In the end, the result for the publisher is the same: reduced ad revenue. Ads don’t render on sites when people stop visiting them any more so than when they’re being blocked.

That reality was led to more and more news sites of “paywalling” their sites, meaning that one has to have either a paper or a digital subscription to read the articles. Most of the sites allow a few “free” articles to be read every month, but some allow none at all. If you want to read the news, you must pay.

Typically the digital subscriptions are inexpensive. The problem for someone like myself who likes to get all sides of a story is that I used to read from eight different online news sites every day, and out of those eight, five are now paywalled. All five paywalled sites are local news sites. I can still read world and national news on CNN, Fox, and BBC for free, but I have to pay to read state and local news.

I really don’t mind paying for the news, to be honest. The problem is that having to pay to read five different news sites gets expensive. It costs almost as much as my car insurance. But each “paper” has some aspects of their coverage that I like, and others that I find lacking. Before ad blocking killed free access, that was no problem. Now it is; and I find myself having to decide if it’s really worth the high cost of staying well-informed.

The thing that angers me is that all of this came about because there are people who seem to feel entitled to benefit from the investment and work of others without contributing at all to the cost — even if that contribution consists of nothing more than allowing the ads to render. No one’s saying they have to click the ads nor even read them. They simply have to allow them to render. Most of the ads on newspapers are pay-per impression, so the user doesn’t have to take any action at all other than to simply allow the ads to render. But that’s too much to ask of these folks. Blocking ads is their right, they insist, even if it literally robs the sites’ publishers of revenue.

Ironically, these same individuals are the ones who who whine the loudest when sites that they like either go paywall or get taken down altogether. I have a friend who is an enthusiastic contributor to a certain ad-blocking extension and a maintainer of several of its lists who was also horrified when a news site that both of us used to read went paywall. And it’s apparently a good paywall because my friend, who is a hacker extraordinaire, can’t figure out a way around it.

But when I suggested that he was a big part of the reason why the site went paywall, my friend got highly insulted. His argument was that advertising is an obsolete way to pay for content. And maybe he’s right. But it’s what we have; and if enough people block it, more sites will go paywall or shut down entirely.

The free Web was great while it lasted. But now it’s dying. Soon it will be gone.