Will newspapers be able to shut down ad-blocking software?

I’m wondering this weekend how many of you use ad blockers as part of your online user experience. I realize they’ve grown in popularity quite a bit in recent years and the major developers have become serious players in the online offerings market space, but content providers hate them. This is particularly true of the major newspapers who have come to increasingly rely on digital advertising revenue just to stay afloat. Their issues with the ad blockers have become a major focus of late and we just learned that a newspaper industry advocacy group is going to court to stop what they refer to as “deceptive practices” on the part of the ad blocking companies. (Washington Post)

The newspaper industry is upping its tactics in the fight against ad-blockers.

The Newspaper Association of America, the industry association representing 2,000 newspapers (including the Washington Post), filed a federal complaint against the ad-blocking industry on Thursday, alleging that software companies which enable users to block ads are misleading the public.

The complaint asks the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the government agency that oversees trade practices, to investigate ad blockers that offer “paid whitelisting,” – a service which charges advertisers to bypass ad-blocking software – along with services that substitute ad blockers’ own advertising for blocked ads or get around publishers’ subscription pages.

As I mentioned above, the NAA is going to war, albeit in a sideways fashion, with a powerful group. A study highlighted by Business Insider last September estimated that ad blocking software had more than 200 million users and that publishers were already gearing up to fight them.

Ad blocking poses a major threat to digital media companies that depend on advertising for revenue. If ad blocking on mobile reaches desktop levels, US digital media companies could lose out on as much as $9.7 billion across digital ad formats next year, according to BI Intelligence estimates based on current usage rates.

Here’s the curious part of this lawsuit. The NAA isn’t asking a court to shut down the ad blocking companies or stop them from creating their products. That’s likely a bridge too far, no matter how much they might wish they could. Their line of attack here is a claim that the companies are deceiving their customers by allowing advertisers to buy their way out of being blocked. That’s not much different than complaints against Yelp which allege that they allow restaurants to purchase a way to eliminate bad reviews while encouraging (or even writing) those bad reviews in the first place. For their part, the ad blockers claim this is horse hockey and that they only allow ads which are not “intrusive” and that users can still shut off all ads if they wish.

But what if the newspapers wanted to go one huge step further and claim that the ad blocking software itself should be banned? Is there any legal basis for attempting to prevent ad blocking companies from developing and distributing these products or consumers from using them? The idea sounds dubious at best. This isn’t a process which involves anyone infecting the servers of the company which is delivering the content or the ads. The software is obtained by the user from a third party and installed on their own machine to control what shows up on their screen. If we think of it in terms of more traditional advertising on television, there’s nothing stopping you from getting up and walking out of the room to go make a sandwich when an advertisement begins or muting your TV or changing the channel. Nobody is stopping the provider from serving up the ads… you’re just deciding whether or not to view them.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with non-intrusive advertising which doesn’t negatively impact the performance of my laptop or completely disrupt the reading experience. Banner and side column ads which are primarily text and static graphics are no problem. In fact, I will confess to having clicked on a few and even ordering some products in my time. But when the ads launch videos which immediately begin soaking up resources until I have to open Task Manager and shut down the Adobe Flash Player (the most frequent villain) just to be able to navigate the page, it’s too much by far. And as the Business Insider report notes, there are running concerns over malware which can find its way into your machine all the more easily as ad serving software becomes more and more complex.

As I see it, it’s the job of the advertiser to come up with an engaging ad which might attract my interest and potential purchase. If they fail to do that I reserve the right to ignore them. But part of that responsibility on their part is to create an ad which doesn’t tick me off by bogging down my machine before I even begin to consider the merits of their product or service. In that case, I feel no qualms about blocking them and I don’t think the courts would back any effort to prevent me from doing so.