The Ethics of ad-blockers

In Line chat we had some discussion going about the ethics of using ad blockers. More specifically, we had been responding to a discussion from Reddit where something like the following argument had been presented:
  1. When users employ ad blockers, they are able to access content for which the producers do not receive compensation.
  2. Accessing uncompensated content is akin to theft.
  3. Therefore, using ad blockers is akin to theft.
As it stands, the argument is certainly unsound, since in this form it would apply to content that had been intended by the originator to be freely available.
Let’s try a more nuanced variant of the argument:
  1. In many cases, content is provided on a site with the understanding that the originator will receive compensation from ads that will be promoted along with the content.
  2. In these cases, there is an implied contract between the originator and the user that the user will only have access to the content if the ads are provided along with the content.
  3. Use of ad blockers breaks this implied contract.
  4. It is wrong to break one’s contracts without morally sufficient justification.
  5. Users do not generally have morally sufficient justification for using ad blockers.
  6. Therefore, it is generally wrong to use ad blockers.
This argument has quite a bit more plausibility to it. It appeals to the deontological concept of a contract, and the corresponding principle that contract-breaches are at least prima facie (on the face of it) wrong.
But is it true that there is a contract between originators and users? It would be disingenuous for users to protest that they did not know why ads normally accompany the content – reasonably informed users know quite well that the ads are there to generate revenue to cover the costs to originators of producing the content, and also to cover the costs of hosting it. Most users at least vaguely know that ad blockers prevent someone somewhere from making money; they know that someone somewhere has to pay for it. They know that if the content were intended to be provided freely, it would not be provided with accompanying ads. This is the basis of the “ad-blockers = theft” argument:
  1. It is akin to theft to access content for free that it is expected will be paid for.
  2. Using ad blockers provides users with free access to content that it is expected will be paid for (in the form of ads).
  3. Therefore, using ad blockers is akin to theft.
Analogies are often presented to bolster this sort of argument. Someone who downloads content that normally requires user payment from a website that does not require user payment, or that does not direct user payments to the originators engages in activity that is akin to theft (hence the term “pirated”). For ad sponsored content, users “pay for” the content they access by watching the ads (or at least by not blocking them). So there is a sense in which the use of ad blockers seems to allow users to access content that was not intended to be provided freely without paying for it.
Can you think of some counter-considerations? I’ll explore some possibilities in another blog post.

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