Shots fired in the ad blocking game

In that cat and mouse game between publishers and users, Facebook just announced that it now blocking ad blockers for desktop visitors to its site by removing the “indicators that tell ad-blocking software what is an ad and what isn’t.”

Andrew Bosworth, vice president for Facebook’s ads and business platform, said: “Disruptive ads are an industry problem, and the rise of ad blockers is a strong signal that people just don’t want to see them, but ad blockers are a really bad solution to that.” Facebook thinks if it can make its ads non-disruptive, fast, and secure, people won’t mind. So it announced that along with blocking ad blockers, it would give users more control over their ad preferences with the hope that they’ll fine-tune their preferences to see ads more relevant to them, thus making the ads “better.”

While I applaud Facebook’s marketing team presenting ad preferences as something beneficial to the user when it’s really a way to collect more data about their likes and dislikes, this game is not just about seeing more relevant ads. Users aren’t happy with the current state of advertising because of many other reasons, many of which they see as intrusive. They’re not happy with the web-wide tracking, geo-tracking, personally-identifying data collection, demographic data collection, the collation of all the above, and the resulting content and the disruptiveness of the ads served. They are also unhappy with security and malware in ads, but those are less common on Facebook, which claims to serve its own ads. In Facebook’s own research, they found that “the main reasons cited for using ad blockers include avoiding disruptive ads (69%), ads that slow down their browsing experience (58%) and security / malware risks (56%).”

Users are also not happy with the trade-off they are making, usually because they feel that they are giving up too much and getting too little in return. They also feel like they have no say in what data is collected and how that data is shared. Services, including Facebook, adopt an all-or-nothing approach: if you don’t agree to our terms of use, don’t use the service.

Annoying full-screen popover. Sorry, Hillary.

Annoying and disruptive full-screen popover. Sorry, Hillary.

Publishers are angry that users are blocking ads, their main source of income. “We need to spell this out clearly to our users. The journalism they enjoy costs real money and needs to be paid for,” Mark Thompson, president and chief executive of The Times, said at an ad industry conference in June where he addressed ad blocking. What I like about this statement is that after years of hiding the data collection and tracking methods in their terms of use, now publishers want to “spell this out clearly to users.” Will the entire trade-off of content for advertising be clarified?

Installing an ad blocker, though, is the one thing users can do. Adoption of ad blocking has jumped by 34% in 2016 in the US. In September 2015, 9% of non-mobile US users used an ad blocker. In France and Germany it was 27% and 24% respectively. Publishers might not like ad blockers, but right now users have a limited tool set to fight back against data collection, tracking and advertising, and ad blockers are easy to use and users see immediate results.

I do agree with Facebook that part of the game is to serve “better ads” that are less disruptive to the user experience. But it’s only part of the picture. The other part it to allow users to control where and how they are being tracked and respect their choices.

Interestingly enough, Procter & Gamble recently announced that it was shifting its Facebook budget away from highly-targeted campaigns into widespread, cheaper ones. “Targeting to super-specific audiences was expensive but didn’t result in a big difference to its business, P&G CMO Marc Pritchard told The Wall Street Journal.” Does it mean that some of the more personal data points are not even necessary for the big advertisers?

Finally, since this is a game of cat and mouse, AdBlock Plus, the ad blocker with over 50% market share, announced today that it has already found a way to circumvent Facebook’s “unblockable” ads.

In the spirit of the Olympics: let the games begin!

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