back to article The case for ethical ad-blocking

When is ad-blocking ethical? How about when the adtech industry is behaving so unethically it destroys people’s livelihoods? Musician and music rights campaigner David Lowery last year made the incendiary suggestion that musicians should encourage their fans to block the advertising running on music-streaming sites – even …


  1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    Typical of the advertising industry

    Immediately brand anything that threatens your business model as unethical. Without any sense of irony.

  2. N2 Silver badge

    When is ad-blocking ethical?

    100% of the time IMO as I dont want dross I'll never buy shoved in my face - if I go to a site that wants me to switch off Adblock, it gets dumped immediately.

    Sites excersice little control over who ultimately uses their advertising space, the BBC et all spewing malware in the form of ransomeware being a typical example.

    So they can all Foxtrott Oscar.

  3. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    I can see two cases for ethical ad-blocking

    1. When it prevents me from accessing the content in the first place. Have you tried accessing el-reg over a slow link (f.e. a couple of channels of Edge in the sticks) from abroad and using an under-powered machine. You will tolerate it without an ad-blocker for ~ 1 minute. After that you will reach for the technical solution to kill the X HP and Y Intel flash pieces of garbage on the page (where X+Y > 5).

    2. When the admen have crossed the line between humans and scum onto the scum side. That is pretty much any syndicated targeted ads nowdays.

    The industry is doing it to themselves forgetting the lesson of the early Google. Google early on bulldozed all the other ad brokers out of the way by having unobtrusive useful and non-resource hungry ads. We will tolerate that. Any day.

    Shouty intrusive crap like the one DoubleClick (it no longer deserves to be called Google) serves today based on digging through our dirty laundry basket (with or without IoT help) - nope, not so much.

  4. Tannin

    First questions first

    Since when has ad blocking ever been anything other than ethical? People have blocked ads since long before there was an Internet.

    Watching TV, most normal people look away, or turn the sound down, or get up to put the kettle on, or even change the channel when the ads come on.

    Reading the paper, who amongst us even sees the ads? We filter them out. We flick past them. We pull out the advertising supplement sections and put them to one side, ready to discard. We turn the pages past the full-page ads and, five minutes later, or even five seconds later, don't even know what the thing we filtered out was.

    The only thing that is new here is this pernicious notion - pushed you may be very sure by advertisers - that not looking at ads is suddenly a Wrong.Thing.

    It isn't a Wrong Thing. It never was. And no amount of propaganda - no amount even of advertising - can make it so.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why wouldn't ad blocking be ethical?

    I don't watch the ads on TV (although I don't watch TV), yet that's okay?

    1. Crisp Silver badge

      Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

      It's my screen.

      It displays what I want it to.

    2. Shadow Systems Silver badge

      Re: First questions first

      Let me hand you a powered megaphone & help you to the roof so you can shout that at the tops of your lungs for everyone to hear!

      Blocking ads isn't unethical, it's the ethical, moral, & smart thing to do. You wouldn't put up with someone digging in your kitchen trash bin to find all the current muck on you, then shouting in your face about how some product you bought wasn't as good as another, while simultaneously giving you a scathing case of SpaceHerpes for having listened to them, so why allow it to happen via your browser either? The advertisers set tracking cookies to datamine the hell out of you (dig through your trash), use that data to target ads to you (shouting about products you've used), and shag the hell out of your computer from all the virus', malware, & zero day exploits they spaff (SpaceHerpes), so PROTECTING YOURSELF IS NOT UNETHICAL.

      I'll stop protecting myself when you acknowledge your personal, financial, & criminal liability for your actions.

    3. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

      When the advertising industry starts considering ethics in it's offerings I might allow that there's room for a discussion of the ethics of ad-blocking.

    4. Rol Silver badge

      Re: First questions first

      Just like you, I filter out all adverts, and as with everyone's exposure to them, the advert still gets brain space.

      Purposefully ignoring an advert does not stop that advert from subliminally working on your neurons and advertisers have known this for years, hence the furore over ads that ran for only a couple of frames in films and tv. Not long enough to notice them, but your brain still saw them, leaving you wondering, why all of a sudden you craved chocolate.

      Short of going all biblical on your offending eyes, I'm afraid only an intensive course of rational reasoning is going to stop you from being influenced by the devil's little helpers.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @ tannin

      "who amongst us even sees the ads? We filter them out. We flick past them. We pull out the advertising supplement sections and put them to one side, ready to discard. We turn the pages past the full-page ads and, five minutes later, or even five seconds later, don't even know what the thing we filtered out was."

      People wouldn't continue to purchase advertising if it didn't pay more. I'd be the last to argue that doing what you and I do naturally is unethical. But I'm less confident that there is no subliminal influence of these rapidly sensed images in aggregate upon our subconscious minds. Does being subjected to and rejecting nearly all of many thousands of sales pitches you can get in a day change the way you feel and relate to others ? I know the difference a day visiting the metropolis has compared to a electronics free day in the countryside upon my state of mind.

      1. PNGuinn Silver badge

        I'll stop protecting myself when you acknowledge ...

        AND give me personal direct and cruel access to your most pain sensitive bits on a continuous basis.

        AND agree that I will have sole copyright and distribution rights to the resulting entertainment.

        Sorry - no deal - I think we will have to negotiate some more over this - someone pass me a bigger bloodstained LART please.

      2. Bullseyed

        Re: @ tannin

        "People wouldn't continue to purchase advertising if it didn't pay more."

        Simply not true. No one has any idea how much advertising actually pays. All of the employees on both sides depend on advertising 'working' for their jobs to continue to exist, so they report accordingly. Nobody wants to admit that they ate a Big Mac because they wanted to, so if you harass people with questions, they'll claim the advertising made them do it.

        And that's just the base layer. That doesn't account for the systemic fraud, routinely exposed on sites like Facebook, where they run bot armies to click links and likes to justify the advertising costs they charge their customers.

        1. ratfox Silver badge

          Re: @ tannin

          No one has any idea how much advertising actually pays.

          Google does! For them, it pays a lot. And note that Google does not get paid for just showing ads; the user actually had to click on them. Which must means there is somewhere a whole lot of users who like ads and click on them.

          I don't know who they are either.

          1. Ian 55

            Re: @ tannin

            How many of the 'whole lot of users' are human though?

          2. MJI Silver badge

            Re: @ tannin

            The clickers.


        2. BobChip

          Re: @ tannin - The "value" of advertising

          There is an assumption here that advertising only exists because it always pays. This is a very questionable assumption.

          One of the earliest proponents of advertising, John Wanamaker, is quoted as saying "Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is that I don't know which half." Many companies feel they must have an advertising budget, because if they don't, how will anyone know about them, or about "product x". it is a bit like taking out a high risk investment and hoping to win. But very few sit down and try to work out what sort of return, if any, they get on the investment.....

          And of course it is in the interests of the advertising industry to promote this behaviour, otherwise they would all be out of business. They just tell their customers to "trust me and keep paying into the investment"

          Think of advertising as a modern hard line religion, in which articles of faith are never to be challenged just in case the truth inadvertently comes out ......

          1. The Packrat

            Re: @ tannin - The "value" of advertising

            The main difference between online advertising and advertising in traditional media is metrics. With online advertising you can know exactly how often an ad has been "displayed" and how many have responded (click through on the link). Advertising in traditional media is more vague in that you can't say how many people have actually seen and/or paid attention to it, let alone been convinced to do whatever the ad was for...

      3. PNGuinn Silver badge

        When the advertising industry starts considering ethics ...

        So when porcine aviators get frostbitten in hell then.

        Sorry, scumbags - it WAS your move - AGES ago.

        It's too late now. Bye - and no thanks for all the ads.

      4. David 138

        Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

        I guess its also their site so they wont show it to you in that case :P Obviously what you want is premium level internet access for a fee per month. Google have already trialled it but people are just too tight to pay for services. People gota get paid!.

        The worst in advertising usually comes from porn, piracy, copy cat sites and facebook. So you could avoid those. People should at least consider supporting sites such as theregister because you are too tight to pay per month for it.

        Turn it off to support the sites you enjoy so you dont ruin it for everyone!! Tight ass people like yourself have already brought Micro Transactions upon mobile games, lets not do the same for the rest of the internet.

      5. P. Lee Silver badge

        Re: First questions first

        I'm not sure "who doesn't filter adverts" is the first question.

        The first question is, to what extent should artists be paid when they aren't performing?

        A couple of things stood out in the article:

        1. there is no natural "right" to "intellectual property." IP is a fiction. Perhaps a useful fiction, but complaining that your monopoly is legally protected enough seems like a bad PR campaign. You might not notice a dip in revenue if youtube disappeared, but quite frankly, if most of the artists disappeared, most people wouldn't notice. Some people would, but you could lose an awful lot before most people noticed. Excludability might be the most "property-like" property of Intellectual Property, but intellectual property isn't property and in the UK at least, we often have public rights of way which (Horror!) trump private ownership.

        2. "The all-powerful middleman today is Big Tech. But changing copyright in favour of the little guy takes time, and isn't easy" Would that be the "little guys" like Sony BMG et al? Do we need to strengthen the rights holders like Simon Cowell? How many "little guys" are there who would have made it, if only youtube and the ASCAP/PRS hadn't tragically taken the money that was meant to feed their starving children? If we did what the article suggests, are we just shifting profit from one middleman (big tech) to another (the music label)? Which serves the public good better?

        My personal opinion is that it isn't generally the artists' skill which brings success, but the marketing. Certainly, skill is important, but the real money in the media industry comes from taking a cheap product and running a successful marketing campaign. Rinse and repeat. I'm not convinced that the film and music industries, while fun, actually improve the world that much.

      6. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

        "It displays what I want it to."

        I don't even tell it what to display or not - I just tell it not to display anything on EasyList. If the advertisers are so inept that they can't figure out how to get past EasyList, then that's their problem, not mine.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Typical of the advertising industry

      Ads are lies and corporate propaganda. They can literally never be ethical.

      1. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

        Re: Typical of the advertising industry

        "Ads are lies and corporate propaganda. They can literally never be ethical."

        I think they can. There are companies that make good products and if they don't advertise, how will you know they exist? The problem is simply the ad version of Gresham's Law, that bad advertising drives out good. But without advertising you would have to visit a dedicated shop for everything, and that means shelf space would only be given to the products that made the most money for the shop - not the best.

        In print media, the UK is far better than the US in this regard.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Typical of the advertising industry

          Good products don't need to advertise. Somehow everyone seems to just know they're the best in their industry.

          1. Kubla Cant Silver badge

            Re: Typical of the advertising industry

            Good products don't need to advertise. Somehow everyone seems to just know they're the best in their industry

            Schnorfle! You owe me a new keyboard. How do I find out which is the best?

    7. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

      if I go to a site that wants me to switch off Adblock, it gets dumped immediately.

      Exactly. If I walk into a supermarket and one of those nice ladies with a sample tray approaches me to ask if I'd like to try a piece of cheese, but keeps trying to get me to taste her cheese even after I've said cheese makes me chuck and I never buy the bilious muck, the supermarket won't be surprised if I walk out.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

        I'm allergic to the musk oil used in some perfumes. At One time the big stores like to position some one at the entrance to spray the customers. I had to file suit against one of them for assault in order to get them to stop.

        I will continue to block ads because I am allergic to malware.

      2. PNGuinn Silver badge

        If I walk into a supermarket ...

        Or - take a bit under protest, pull a nasty face over eating it, barf all over the samples trolley, and the floor, and THEN leave, threatening to sue ....

    8. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

      It's very ethical in my mind. If the ads did not deliver malware, if they weren't full of Flash - noise - blinking lights, I'd let them through. But given the circumstances of malware alone, they get blocked just like certain sites. Since the ad agencies and the websites that run the ads won't police themselves, we have to do it for them and best way is to block and destroy the revenue stream.

    9. PleebSmasher
      Dead Vulture

      Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

      Once malvertising hit the scene, any credibility that advertisers may have had regarding ad-blocking disappeared.

    10. h4rm0ny

      Well it would be unethical when it resulted in harm, I guess. That's the usual basis of ethics. And I can certainly see that stripping out the way sites such as El Reg make money but still taking their product harms the site. Yes, it's not enforced by a contract or DRM, but I don't necessarily take the position that anything not actively locked down or forbidden by contract becomes okay to do. On the whole, I am fine with sites having advertising and I respect that I am getting something from the site so I have the courtesy to not block them getting something from me for it. Legality is of little interest to me as in my experience the law often has only a passing acquaintance with ethics (and sadly, the entire history of government in this species will probably back me up on that :/ ).

      Where I do feel entitled to block it, is when it starts spying on me. That is an actively aggressive act which I reject. I do not appreciate that to use the Internet I must submit to giant ad corporations knowing everything I do and everywhere I go.

      So in short: I'm fine with advertising and wont normally block it because I want the sites I like to be profitable and their employees to be paid. But I despise tracking and will cheerfully do what I can to stop that, even giving up the odd site (such as that make it too difficult to avoid.

    11. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: First questions first

      Ads are like content. There's a choice. What the ad companies want is forced viewing. Imagine the hell that would be raised if, say, FB wanted a mandate that FB is your homepage on your browser and you WILL look at it? Or a TV network got a mandate that your TV had to tune to their network for X hours a day. Sorry ad guys, I'll tell you the same thing I'd tell any other company that demands a mandate.... FO.

    12. Florida1920 Silver badge

      Why wouldn't ad blocking be ethical?

      Exactly. Ad blocking is the Web version of the Mute button.

    13. PNGuinn Silver badge

      Re: First questions first

      Ad Blocking is Piracy.

      Piracy is theft.

      Theft kills kittens.

      I hate cats.

      What's not to like?

    14. cyberdemon

      Just block JavaScript

      Use NoScript (firefox), ScriptNo (chrome), etc.

      None of the "bad" ads work, including all that jump-in-your-face noisy pop-over bollocks, and the insidious mouse-pointer-tracking shite. Most of the "normal" ones are gone too, but they were all surreptitiously tracking your activity.

      The only ads that remain, are plain HTML images with HREFs.

      I call this kind of ad-blocking "ethical" because if a website owner honestly wants to promote someone else's product, without using some parasitic ad-network with a shedload of ulterior data-mining motives, then he still can. He or the ad-network just has to take all the crap out and it'll work fine.

      The problem is that the ad-networks pay websites more because they are making money out of slurping and mining user's data (perhaps more than they are paid by advertisers for marketing their products). THAT's what's unethical if you ask me.

      The downside is that some badly-designed most websites break until you whitelist their javascript (but not their ad-network's). But it's pretty easy to spot which scripts are legit and which are ad-networks just by the domain they are coming from. And pages load faster too.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Just block JavaScript

        "Use NoScript (firefox), ScriptNo (chrome), etc."

        Yep, that's what I do too. No ad-blockers here, just NoScript and Ghostery. On the whole, whitelisting the actual domain I'm visiting is all that is required for the site to work. Sometimes the site is using a Content Delivery Network for some aspects of their site. If I feel I'm missing something I'd like to see then I can either temporarily or permanently whitelist the CDN domain too. That pretty much takes care of everything. Oh yes, FlashBlock, so that stuff is click to play.

    15. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      Re: First questions first

      Touche, and very true.

    16. dan1980

      Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

      @N2 - "Sites exercise little control over who ultimately uses their advertising space . . ."

      Pretty much this.

      I do understand the way ad-slinging works and I do appreciate that it is not so straight-forward for sites to implement a more careful ad policy with greater control.

      But that understanding does not change the fundamental problem, which is that the vast majority of websites that display ads simply rent a portion of their site for a third-party (often Google) to on-sell to, largely unlimited other slingers.

      These ads are delivered via scripting languages and often contain scripting themselves. This is just plain dangerous and, whatever the 'ethics' surrounding ads and ad-blocking amounts to, the fact that allowing ads puts your computer at risk cannot be denied and should not be ignored or down-played.

      Once that is accepted, the question becomes: is it reasonable to expect people to willingly open themselves up to (potentially crippling) data loss, identity theft, phising attacks and financial scams?

      Or, put another way: is it ethical for a site owner to open visitors up to potentially malicious content that they either cannot or are not willing to control?

      If a site only serves static, image-based ads (like a newspaper or magazine) then we have no problem and blocking them is, if not unethical, then at least a little bit selfish. But while the continue to serve ads that put visitors at risk, it is simply prudent for visitors to block that risk.

      In other words, the way it is now, ad blockers are almost a part of your virus/malware protection, just as much as spam filters and AV programs, so asking users to disable ad blockers for a site is akin to asking them to turn off their anti-virus.

    17. teebie

      Re: First questions first

      "Since when has ad blocking ever been anything other than ethical?"

      A small number of people, who tend to have a vested interest, have long wished for us to believe that it is.

    18. BobChip
      Thumb Up

      Re: First questions first

      Just remember that the German courts have repeatedly concluded, on no less than five consecutive occasions, that adblocking IS legal, in part on the basis that we - the internet users - have absolutely no contractual obligation to watch or consume adverts. Full stop.

      Quote from El Reg - "Adblock Plus's operations and communications manager, Ben Williams, said the court found there is no contract between publishers under which users have somehow “agreed” to view all the ads a publisher serves, commenting: "To the contrary, said the court, users have the right to block those or any ads, because no such contract exists."

      I might in addition argue that the adslingers are stealing my bandwidth, or my electricity, or interfering with my PC, all without my consent, or that they are putting my security at risk with malware, but "no contractual obligation" is ethical enough for me.

      Don't let the b******s off the hook!

    19. SimonC

      Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

      Never say never. I'll turn it off for sites that I deem worthy of trading, usually indie sites that ask politely such as comic artists and people that have written useful tools to download that have a small, useful little banner.

      It's when you can tell before you press 'unblock' that 900 swfs are gonna load and animated gifs are gonna strobe up and down the page that I close the site and never return.

    20. Bamboozled

      Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

      Agreed. I pay to access the internet I expect not the see ads. If Netflix start displaying ads then they will get the boot, so what's the difference than?

  6. Peter Prof Fox

    Stupid question

    It's always 'ethical'. There's no 'moral' reason involved.

    I chose what I see. If content providers don't like it that's their problem.

    A better question is: When is leeching my bandwidth 'ethical'.

  7. Mage Silver badge

    When is ad-blocking ethical?

    When it's NOT hosted by the domain of web page?


    It's quite ethical to block it even if it's from the same server, though I can't see how to do that as to a program it would be potentially the same as the content you want.

    Since when was it a moral imperative to actually consume adverts (or lies).

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

      "It's quite ethical to block it even if it's from the same server, though I can't see how to do that as to a program"

      The content blocker in Agnitum Outpost Firewall/Security Suite does a good job, mainly because many sites put ad's in a folder labelled 'ads' or something similar.

    2. Remy Redert

      Re: When is ad-blocking ethical?

      Blocking ads from the same server is usually simple as well. Strip all flash. That just leaves you with (mostly) static ads which are usually unobtrusive. If the host makes those an annoyance as well, time to find another place for your content.

  8. Shadow Systems Silver badge

    Dear Advertisers, pucker up & KMA.

    If I access the internet via a cellular modem & cellular data plan, then I pay for everything I download. If you want me to download your ad then you need to pay me for my bandwidth to do so. You refuse to pay me, then I refuse to download you. It's that fekkin simple. Your ad costs me money, so I'll not download it out of the goodness of my heart.

    *Pointing* There's my arse. Pucker up & start snogging. Bonus points for using tongue.

  9. lleres


    Your claim that 'artists' negotiate contracts with tech companies is.. curious.

    Is it artists or the music industry that enters negotiations?

    Is it artists, the tech companies or the music industry that decides how much of the negotiated amount goes to artists?

  10. moiety

    To flip the question; how is stealing my bandwidth; time and data ethical? To then accuse me of a crime if I choose not to accept that is rank hypocrisy. Plus blocking ads is the sensible thing to do...not blocking them gives you a significantly greater chance of catching a dose of something unpleasant.

    Bands are fighting a war on 3 fronts; search engines; advertising and rights agencies. But there's iTunes etc; and there's nothing stopping bands from selling their own tunes on their own's not expensive or particularly hard to do.

  11. Magani

    When it comes to browsing the web...

    ... I have two friends:

    AdBlock+ and NoScript.


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