Could Ad Blocking Become A Major Legal Battle?

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should...because someone might sue you over it. Lots of folks are excited about software or browser extensions that will block ads on websites, such as the add-on Adblock Plus, but it’s possible that ad blocking could incite a legal battle.

The issue here is fairly straightforward: many websites, including the biggest in the world such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and so on, rely on advertising to generate revenue. Advertisers pay money to show up as boxed ads on web pages, appear at the top of search results, and more, and if they’re getting blocked on the end user side, they’re not going to be happy about that.

But do they have a case?

Adblock Plus

ComputerWorld posits two potential legal arguments against ad blocking, neither of which are particularly compelling but could be used persuasively in arguments. One is that ad blocking could violate the page’s copyright, because removing ads could constitute an unlawful adaptation of the page. The other angle is that ad blocking could be a violation of the contract between a website and an advertiser; the two parties entered into an agreement, and the removal of ads could breach that contract.

In either case, both the website publisher and the advertiser may be compelled to take action, as the long-term result of ad blocking would be lost revenue for both parties. Makers of ad blocking software would then be in the crosshairs, and the resulting litigation could set a major precedent for years to come.

There’s another issue that ad blocking raises though, which is whether it’s ultimately prudent for end users to block ads at all. It’s true that ads are essentially annoying in that they interrupt whatever we’re reading or watching, but advertising also makes the world go ‘round. Consider that currently, Internet users receive an unprecedented volume and number of services of (more or less) exceedingly high quality--for free. We pay absolutely nothing to use Google, the fastest, most efficient, and most comprehensive information-gathering tool of all time, nor for Facebook and Twitter, two of the most powerful online communication tools ever conceived. Web-based mail? Free. Youtube? Free. Unlimited music streaming? Free. News, weather, and stock info? Free. Word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation tools? Free.

Virtually all of it is paid for by ads.

Granted, some ads are just terribly annoying, so there’s an argument to be made for advertisers to see ad blocking as motivation to simply do a better job, such as by using targeted ads. Targeted ads can seem invasive and even disturbing at first blush, but in reality, it’s far better to see ads for things you actually like and are interested in as opposed to a glut of random ads. For example, if you’re an outdoorsy fellow in his mid-20s, which would you rather see: an ad for a 40% off sale on hiking gear from a company you buy from on occasion, or a skin care product ad aimed at women over 50? Further, users are more likely to engage with ads if they pertain to their interests and/or are entertaining, which benefits all parties as users are less annoyed and advertisers see more bang for their buck.

Ad blocking is a classic case of technology being able to accomplish something that may or may not be legal and disrupts the standard way of doing things. Hopefully in this case advertisers can pivot and adjust to this growing trend instead of dragging lawyers into the middle of it.