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Is a truce possible in the ad-blocking war?

Taylor Armerding | May 3, 2016
The rhetoric between online advertisers and ad-blocking companies remains incendiary. But both sides say there may be a middle ground – less intrusive, less bandwidth-hogging ads that put user experience above all else.

The online advertising world is a war zone – increasingly bandwidth-intensive, intrusive ads are countered by the exploding use of ad-blocking technology, which in turn is countered by increasingly aggressive anti-ad-blocking technology.

But amid what looks like an arms race, at least some in the industry are arguing that something close to a win-win is possible: A settlement that would lead to users being willing to tolerate – perhaps even look at – ads that are much less annoying, intrusive and data-consumptive than they are now.

Not that it sounds like any kind of truce is pending soon. As Fast Company put it this past January, which marked the 10th anniversary of AdBlock Plus, a browser plug-in that has been downloaded more than 500 million times, “after a decade hoping that ad blocking would just go away, online publishers are starting to freak out.”

How much they have to freak out about is a matter of dispute. A study last year by Pagefair, a company that works with publishers to produce less intrusive ads, and Adobe, estimated annual revenue lost to ad blockers at $21.8 billion.

Critics immediately challenged that figure, contending that the study contained a “fundamental methodology error” that led to a “gross inflation” of actual losses.

Scott Meyer, CEO of Ghostery, a company that makes what it calls a “consumer privacy tool” that blocks targeted ads, said he thinks lost revenue is more in the range of $1 billion to $2 billion. “That number ($21.8 billion) is wildly overstated,” he said.

 scott meyer
Scott Meyer, CEO, Ghostery

Beyond that,  the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) reported just this past week that, “U.S. digital advertising revenues reached an all-time high of $59.6 billion in 2015 … a 20% surge over the earlier record-breaking 2014 revenues of $49.5 billion – and … the sixth year in a row of double-digit growth for the industry.”

Still, some of the rhetoric surrounding the issue is more incendiary than that at a Donald Trump rally. The IAB, the trade organization for online ad companies, abruptly and without explanation canceled the registration of AdBlock Plus to its Annual Leadership Meeting in January.

In his keynote address at the meeting, IAB President Randall Rothenberg called AdBlock Plus "an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes."

And he was just getting started. Instead of complaining about the money the ad industry was losing, he portrayed ad blockers as stealing freedom and choice from consumers.

“It has nothing to do with giving consumers control,” he said. “It has everything to do with lining the pockets of the for-profit, ad-blocking profiteers.

 

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