When the Machine Rages Against Itself

This week at TechCrunch Disrupt, Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), argued that

Ad blocking is an extortion-based business and it hurts publishers.

Rothenberg’s statement was a bald accusation intended to vilify the ad blocking industry generally, and Adblock Plus in particular. As someone who helps make Adblock Plus, I feel compelled to respond.

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From his perspective, ad blocking software companies are extracting revenue from publishers by forcing them to pay for whitelisting advertising content they’re being paid to show. In a quest of supreme greed and malicious intent, ad blockers are basically attempting to suck publishers dry until the entire free Web crumbles into a smoldering ash heap – all for the personal gain of a few masterminds.

It’s definitely a novel conspiracy theory. It’s also a convenient story.

What I find most ironic is that this accusation comes from Rothenberg, who oversees an organization who helped build the very adverting ecosystem users are clearly fed up with.

Average human beings using the Web didn’t ask for exposure to advertising in exchange for content on the Web. That’s something publishers and advertisers decided. There was nothing inherently wrong with that. After all, advertising pervades nearly every aspect of modern, Western life.

But instead of focusing on good advertising, the IAB sold publishers and advertisers on the idea that all advertising on the Web should be standardized. If all advertising could be reduced into “ad units” that populated pre-determined formats on every major website, then ads could be easier to produce and display at scale.

Ad Tech companies soon emerged to build the infrastructure we now call programmatic advertising. By creating an entire system that could deliver ads, anywhere, in real time, and without human assistance, they made it possible to scale advertising so that it was highly profitable.

By standardizing advertising, and then taking human decision making out of the process, publishers and advertisers are inextricably connected to the one and only system for generating revenue – a system even the IAB admits is broken.

Meanwhile, Adblock Plus and others have given users the one thing they never had in the beginning: a choice. Ad blockers themselves often began as a frustrated developer’s response to the terrible ads that blink, flash, animate, follow them around wherever they go online, and infect their computers with virus. After many years of minimal adoption from those outside the hardcore tech communities, ad blockers suddenly become a popular new tool for everyone else who was fed up with advertising on the Web.

Only in the past couple of years, now that hundreds of millions of users have ad blockers installed on their devices, have publishers and advertisers become acutely aware of what this phenomena could mean for their business.

Rothenburg is essentially claiming that ad blocking companies are to blame for the problems publishers and advertisers are facing with the loss of ad revenue. This is ironic, considering that companies like Eyeo (who makes Adblock Plus), are actively trying to find other ways to monetize content on the Web. For example, we recently announced Flattr Plus, an extension which will allow users to pay for good content directly. Before that, we launched the Acceptable Ads program, which allows publishers to show nonintrusive ads to Adblock Plus users (with permission, of course). From the very beginning, in fact, we’ve been trying to work alongside publishers, advertisers, and ad tech companies in an attempt to broker some compromise.

And why won’t some stakeholders consider alternative solutions to this mess we’re in? Why do they claim we must be evil and / or corrupt?

Mostly because publishers or advertisers literally can’t try another solution (yet).

They can’t because they’re all hooked up to the same intricate system that is the ONLY system in place. Even worse, publishers and advertisers have lost all control of the very content they produce, on the grounds that third-party experts and algorithms can do a far better job at produce big results through an elaborate system of tracking, targeting, and automated delivery. As a results, publishers never really know what any given user is seeing on their own damn website, and advertisers are forced to focus on automation and volume instead quality and brand loyalty.

Changing the current system would be monumentally difficult, and it would be too costly for most publishers take back control of the adverting on their websites. But if things don’t change for the better in the end, then everyone will lose – including average users, professional content creators, and maybe even entire industries.

So now I must ask you, Mr. Rothenburg:

Who is extorting whom?

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