Ad blocking – a coming legal battleground?

My latest Computerworld article is online. It is on ad blocking – a subject that has had surprisingly little coverage:

Consider these two facts –

Fact 1: many of the world’s largest internet companies, including Google and Facebook, derive most of their revenue from serving up online advertisements.

Fact 2: one of the most popular browser add-ons is Adblock Plus, free software designed to eliminate online advertising from a user’s browser, with the Firefox version alone recording close to one million downloads per week.

Overall statistics on browser ad blocking are hard to come by, but Mozilla records over 178 million total downloads of Adblock Plus and over 14 million average daily users for its Firefox browser alone. Even when extrapolated over all browsers, this still only represents a small percentage of web traffic. Whether this will grow significantly remains to be seen.

There are also technical ways in which websites try to defeat ad-blockers, but this is somewhat of a cat-and-mouse game between developers, with dynamically-updated filter lists and other techniques giving ad-blockers the upper hand. There is also a growing trend of sites asking users (nicely) to not ad-block them.

The robust health of the online ad industry means that any legal battles over browser ad blocking are probably some years away – if they emerge at all. The attention at the moment seems to be on the nascent but potentially critical cases involving other forms of ad blocking – such as the Fox v Dish litigation currently underway in the US:

Also, browser ad blocking is a slipperier target (practically and legally) than what the likes of Dish are attempting.

Update: Slashdot has picked up the article, with lots of interesting comments.

2 thoughts on “Ad blocking – a coming legal battleground?

  1. I’m, sorry but I feel this is a totally ridiculous article. You repeat “could be claimed” under the heading Legal Position when their there really is no argument at all, and the topic is absolutely not a “legal battleground”. Inflammatory headings do not help your case.

    One significant difference between TV and internet traffic which you have mentioned but explained, is that the former is a streamed broadcast.

    Therefore, the argument above; that if a stream is altered in some fashion it constitutes copyright infringement is a ridiculous one. If a broadband provider offers a poor service and the UDP steam is not complete from server to users computer – Does that constitute copyright infringement? Should we expect end users to start suing all ISPs? Seriously, that is never going to get to court.

    As for WWW content – ie web pages, they are not streamed and the content delivered to the end point differs from PC to PC, from mobile device to mobile device, from web browser to web browser. The end user’s choice of device or Brower dictates what IS and what IS NOT transferred to their device, and how it is rendered. Any how many pages are plain HTML these days? Statistically, the vast vast majority of content delivered is dynamic, changing dependent on what cookies a users has on their device, previous pages viewed, time of day, etc.

    What about the Security appliance conglomerates (Intel or McAfee as they are also known for example), which offer the blocking of certain content? Are they breaking copyright law too?

    If there was IN ANY WAY a threat to ad blocking software using the above argument, they would just change their code, so that all data was transferred to a users machine, and simply not render the advertising.

    I feel it is obvious that advertising will have to change or disappear. If you want to read articles from the Guardian website for example, you would need to subscribe to their site, including the delivery method, forcing you to see content unfettered. For those not willing to pay, they would offer a free but limited content option. Many sites already offer a similar model.

    This negates the need for any lengthy, costly, court battles, which winning would ultimately be fruitless as users would still win by using some other new technique that avoids the law, such as firewalls or other systems which use IP lists to block known advertising.

    • Mike, I am not saying there is merit in any particular legal attack (yet to be defined) on ad-blocking, I am just giving my view of what the likely bases of such an attack would be. And as my article says, I agree it would be technically very difficult, if not impossible, to prevent ad-blocking anyway.

      However, my view is that there are too many billions of dollars at stake for there not to be a legal challenge to ad-blocking at some level. The various legal & policy responses to file sharing gives some insights here.

      Cheers
      Guy

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