National Consumers League

Ad-Blocking: Is it a dirty word or good security practice?

breyault.jpgAd blocking is a dirty word for many in the online publishing and advertising industries. The head of one of the largest industry associations famously called a AdBlock Plus, one of the biggest ad blocker software companies an “unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes.”

Why the hate? Unsurprisingly, the answer comes down to money. As their name suggests, ad blocking technology allows Web users (i.e. you and me) to prevent advertisements from appearing in desktop and mobile browsers. When consumers don’t see ads online, websites don’t make as much money, which makes it harder to produce the content that draws users in the first place. In the publishing industry’s nightmares, this threatens to create a vicious cycle that leads to the end of free content on the Web. 

The advertising industry’s heartburn about ad blockers is driven by the explosive growth of the technology. As of December 2016, nearly one in five (18 percent) Web users in the United States had an ad blocker installed on their browser. In other countries, the use of ad blockers is far higher. For example, 58 percent of Web users in Indonesia and 29 percent of German users use ad blockers. Globally, the number of devices using ad blocking software grew by 142 million from 2015-2016, a trend which shows no signs of slowing, particularly on mobile devices. 

That said, there are efforts to address the need for consumers to have ad blockers installed in the first place. For example, on June 1 Google confirmed reports that it plans to have its Chrome browser automatically block ads that do not conform to advertising standards published by the Coalition for Better Ads. That standard prohibits egregious ads that do things like autoplay videos, take up too much screen real estate, or make users wait to see content while an ad displays.

Given Google’s 53 percent market share, this announcement has the potential to significantly improve consumers’ data security. That’s because insecure ads can pose a significant malware threat to users. A May 2015 study by Google, the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Santa Barbara found that tens of millions of visitors to Google’s services had unwanted adware installed on their computer. Within that group, half had at least two, and nearly one-third of users had at least four such programs infecting their machines. A similar study by security firm Namogoo found that 15-30 percent of e-commerce website visitors were infected with malware that causes them to view injected ads, malicious links, and fraudulent spyware on otherwise legitimate sites. 

Given these threats, moving ad-blocking into the mainstream could have a significantly positive impact on consumers’ vulnerability to malware. By dramatically increasing the number of users with ad-blocking technology on their browsers, the pressure on the worst offenders in the advertising ecosystem to clean up their acts in increased. When users see fewer bad ads, it increases user trust in online advertising overall. In the long term and somewhat counterintuitively, this may actually reduce the need for users to rely on third-party ad blockers to help reduce their data security risk.

The New York Times has called the growth of ad blocking an “existential threat” to the $50 billion online advertising industry. It is therefore serendipitous that the ultimate solution to the war over ad blocking may be more, not less ad blocking.