More on ad blockers

One of my favorite Firefox extensions is Evernote’s Clearly.  Clearly reformats online content in a way that makes it much easier to read. I read a lot of blogs and other online content, and I find that filtering content through Clearly makes online reading much more pleasant for me. But Clearly strips the display of ads from the content it reformats. In this respect, it functions as a defacto ad blocker. So if ad blockers are unethical, it seems Clearly would be, as well. This would make me sad.

The fact that I really want to be able to continue to use Clearly with an easy conscience raises an important warning flag. Philosophers are increasingly recognizing the importance of motivated reasoning and cognitive biases and their relevance to philosophical argument. I know that I want to be able to justify my continued use of Clearly, and so I will have to be extra vigilant to make sure I don’t accept bad arguments just because I like their conclusions.

The argument I gave in the last blog post claimed that ad blockers facilitate wrongful accessing of sponsored content by effectively transforming it into unsponsored content without the consent of the content originators or hosts. I also suggested that this constitutes a breach of an implicit contract between the originator (or host) of that content and the end user.

Some ethical frameworks (egoism, in particular) make it quite easy to reply to this line of argument, but I don’t find egoism or any of its close cousins especially appealing.

One way of weakening the strength of the argument is to suggest that when advertisers pay for their ads to accompany content, what they are paying for is not a guarantee that their content will be seen, but rather only for a chance that it will be seen. This is most evident in pay-per-click (PPC) ads, where the advertiser only gets paid if the user clicks on an ad link. In the vast majority of cases where PPC ads are displayed along with content, users don’t click on the ads. It would be implausible to suggest that users are in breach of implicit contract by not clicking on ads in these cases. Suppose Ferd never clicks on ads at all. In this case, the effective chance that Ferd will click on an ad is already zero, so if Ferd uses an ad blocker, the chance that he will click on an ad simply remains at zero. Similarly, if Ferd routinely ignores ads and tries to use his own powers of focus as an ad blocker (which is the norm), it is implausible to suggest that he is in breach of contract and that he is ethically obligated to notice ads that are displayed along with the content he is accessing.

The counter to this line of argument, however, is that by employing an ad blocker, users remove all possibility of seeing or clicking on ads. Without the ad blocker, there is at least the chance that the ads might be noticed and clicked.

This provides one relevant difference between Clearly and most ad blockers: With Clearly, content is not automatically formatted when the page loads in a browser. Rather, the user must actively click the Clearly button once the page has loaded. This means that if there are any ads on the page, there is a chance that the user will notice and click on them before re-rendering the page without the ads using Clearly.

A more radical line of response is to challenge the legitimacy of the contract altogether. There are several lines of argument that might be pursued here. One of the simplest is that content providers have no right to subject users to severe annoyances that are no part of the content itself. If content providers need to pay for the content, they need to find ways to do it that don’t significantly disrupt the use of that content. Many ads, however, do exactly that. In such cases, the use of ad blockers simply affirms the right of users not to endure disruptions that are not part of the content they want to access.

I have mixed reactions to this argument. It is certainly possible that users might disingenuously label content “severely disruptive” as a rationalization for employing an ad blocker. On the other hand, I installed an ad blocker myself after my 6-year-old was literally screaming in frustration because ads kept popping up while he was trying to watch some YouTube videos. Although he knew in theory how to close some of them, sometimes in trying to do so he accidentally clicked the ad instead. In other cases, he couldn’t find the ‘x’ to click in order to close them.

The appeal to rights cuts both ways, then. It seems we need to balance the following two principles:

(1) Content providers have a right to determine the conditions under which that content is provided to users.

(2) Users have a right to access content provided to them in a way that is not excessively disruptive.

Negatively expressed in terms of obligations (notice we are talking about moral rights and obligations, not legal rights and obligations):

(1*) Content providers have an obligation to provide content to users in a way that does not subject them to unreasonable disruptions.

(2*) Users have an obligation to accept reasonable conditions on content that is provided to them.

So now our attention is drawn to the criteria of reasonability here. What are your thoughts?

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