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Facebook, Ad Blockers and the End of the Open Web

by Dennis Fisher on Tuesday October 11, 2016

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The web was designed as an open platform, a way for people and machines to communicate with each other regardless of borders or other barriers. The network’s architects meant for it to remain that way, but over time it has gradually become more segmented, by nations as well as corporations, and that’s to the detriment of users everywhere.

The insidious creep of walled gardens, paywalls, and other barriers to the free and open flow of information has been going on for the better part of two decades, but it’s begun to accelerate recently. The best example of what’s going on right now is the decision by Facebook to begin using code to defeat ad blockers on its platform. The company announced last week that it was making changes to its advertising system so that users who employ ad blocking software would still see ads when they used Facebook on their desktops.

This announcement was not met with much enthusiasm from users, as you might imagine. Privacy advocates renounced the decision, as well, saying that it infringed on users’ rights and potentially exposed them to additional privacy and security risks. The users of Adblock Plus, one of the more popular blocking extensions, took action, quickly producing a new filter that defeated Facebook’s detection mechanism. Facebook’s engineers decried the action, and the back and forth will likely go on for some time.

Facebook is not alone in making this move. A number of high-profile media sites, such as Forbes and Wired, have deployed scripts in recent months that detect ad-blocking extensions and ask users to turn them off or whitelist the sites. Some sites even ask users to become “members” and pay a small fee if they want to continue to block ads on their pages.

These moves have been greeted with plenty of backlash from users, which is understandable. Users have grown accustomed to getting virtually all of their information and services online for free. Media companies and social networks have encouraged this behavior by providing their content and services at no cost and subsidizing the operations with ad revenue. That’s the trade-off that we’ve all made and it’s worked out pretty well. Until now.

The proliferation of ad-blockers has put a serious dent in sites’ ad revenue, and so they’re fighting back. That’s a natural reaction, but it’s also one that leads straight into a brick wall. Users have more options than ever to get the content they’re looking for, legal or otherwise, and if one avenue is blocked, they will try another and another until they get what they’re looking for. There is no way that this ends well for the sites putting up these walls.

Researchers at Princeton University have studied this issue and they’ve developed a tool that will detect and label Facebook’s new ads, even without actively blocking them. And their considered opinion is that this move may just be a feint, at least for the time being. The folks at Facebook and other companies know that this cat-and-mouse game leads nowhere good.

“All of this must be utterly obvious to the smart engineers at Facebook, so the whole ‘unblockable ads’ PR push seems likely to be a big bluff. But why? One possibility is that it’s part of a plan to make ad blockers look like the bad guys. Hand in hand, the company seems to be making a good-faith effort to make ads more relevant and give users more control over them,” the Princeton researchers said.

Facebook and the other sites that are fighting back against ad blockers have every right to monetize the content they’re providing. It costs plenty of money to produce that content, and these are for-profit companies. But anti-user behavior doesn’t have a history of working out very well, and it’s unlikely that this will be the exception.

Tags:  Privacy

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