More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Whiting out the ads, but at what cost?
By NOAM COHEN, New York Times
September 3, 2007

MORE white space.

I sent an e-mail message to a friend telling him about Adblock Plus, an easy-to-use free addition to the Firefox Internet browser that deletes advertisements from Web sites. That subject line of his reply summed it up quite nicely.

What happens when the advertisements are wiped clean from a Web site? There is a contented feeling similar to what happens when you watch a recorded half-hour network TV show on DVD in 22 minutes, or when a blizzard hits Times Square and for a few hours, the streets are quiet and unhurried, until the plows come to clear away all that white space.

But when a blizzard hits Times Square, the news reports will focus on the millions of dollars of business lost, not the cross-country skiing opportunities gained.

Likewise, in the larger scheme of things, Adblock Plus ? while still a niche product for a niche browser ? is potentially a huge development in the online world, and not because it simplifies Web sites cluttered with advertisements.

The larger importance of Adblock is its potential for extreme menace to the online-advertising business model. After an installation that takes but a minute or two, Adblock usually makes all commercial communication disappear. No flashing whack-a-mole banners. No Google ads based on the search terms you have entered.

From that perspective, the program is an unwelcome arrival after years of worry that there might never be an online advertising business model to support the expense of creating entertainment programming or journalism, or sophisticated search engines, for that matter.

For now, however, the big players have decided to ignore the phenomenon. Neither Google nor, for example, would comment on ad-blocking programs, which can also be added to Microsoft?s Internet Explorer 7. (The Internet Explorer add-ons are not necessarily free and do not necessarily work as seamlessly as Adblock Plus working with the open-source Firefox browser.)

Wladimir Palant, developer of the open-source Adblock Plus project, wrote in an e-mail message that he had not heard anything from large companies like Google, because, he suspects, the program ?isn?t popular enough yet. Attacking it would be a waste of time for these companies.? He estimated there were 2.5 million users of Adblock Plus around the world.

?The numbers are rising steadily,? he wrote, adding that his figures do not ?show exponential growth any more (luckily, the server has limited traffic), but there are still 300,000 to 400,000 new users each month.?

Mr. Palant, a 27-year-old programmer in Cologne, Germany, is not an ideological opponent of online advertising. For example, he counts himself a fan of the ads that show up with a Google search, saying they are useful and unobtrusive. That does not mean Adblock will not block Google?s ads, however. It means Mr. Palant has to customize his own version of the program to allow them in.

But if enough people rally to Adblock and similar services, they could be considered the TiVo for the computer, but without any expensive equipment or service charges. And perhaps most critically, as an open-source project, Adblock is the hands of anyone who wants to contribute. So no one can decide to make a deal with prominent Web sites to change the way the program operates. (As things turned out, TiVo and a rival, ReplayTV, opted not to include an automatic service to skip ads after vociferous objections by the television industry.)

For now, the opposition to Adblock Plus has been led by small Web sites who want all Firefox users blocked from Internet sites in retaliation. One such advocacy site,, taunts a Firefox user with the headline, ?You?ve reached this page because the site you were trying to visit now blocks the Firefox browser.?

The page includes the following argument: ?While blanket ad blocking in general is still theft, the real problem is Adblock Plus?s unwillingness to allow individual site owners the freedom to block people using their plug-in. Blocking Firefox is the only alternative.?

Mr. Palant, writing on a blog related to the project (, lashed out at those kinds of arguments.

?There is only one reliable way to make sure your ads aren?t blocked ? make sure the users don?t want to block them,? he wrote. ?Don?t forget about the users. Use ads in a way that doesn?t degrade their experience.?

For now, these issues will be debated on the fringes of the Internet. The first stage of a corporate response would be technological, not legal, said Randal C. Picker, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has studied the copyright issues related to TiVo. Television networks could not change their signals to thwart TiVo the way Web sites can use technology to complicate the process of filtering out ads, he said.

One response by Web sites would be for them ?to serve ads from their own servers,? Mr. Palant wrote in an e-mail message. ?For them, this has the advantage that they will probably escape common filter rules, which are usually targeted at large advertising servers.?

He said, however, that ?the most annoying ads usually find their way to popular filter lists.?

The only large player willing to comment was Microsoft, which is in an interesting position: it produces the dominant browser that is being challenged by Firefox, but it is also in the online ad business through its MSN portal and search functions.

In a statement, Microsoft spoke of its success in permitting third-party developers to ?add value to the browser experience through the creation of add-ons.? The statement continues: ?The range of add-ons available does include ad blocking software. It would not be appropriate for Microsoft to comment on the merits or demerits of a specific add-on, or group of add-ons. Provided they have not been designed with malicious intent and do not compromise a user?s privacy or security, Microsoft is pleased to see new add-ons that add to the range of options that users have for customizing their browsing experience.?

It?s nice of Microsoft to recognize that there will always be people who delight in the white space. Given the decentralized nature of the Internet, the user?s experience has to come first ? for now.
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