When blockers block the blockers

by greg on May 4, 2009

There’s been some recent controversy between NoScript and AdBlock Plus, two popular extensions for Firefox, both used pretty extensively to prevent end users from seeing advertisements. NoScript monetizes through ads on its site and update page and had been using a simple trick to prevent AdBlock Plus from working there. AdBlock Plus recently patched that hole, and the owner of NoScript suddenly saw revenues plummet, since (surprise, surprise) most of his audience was suddenly blocking his ads. A minor war then broke out between parties, with the owner of NoScript taking steps to automatically add his sites to AdBlock Plus’ whitelist, and the maintainers of a popular AdBlock Plus list responded with dedicated effort to ensure NoScript’s ads stayed good and blocked. Much bad publicity resulted, and the guy trying to make some money off of advertising had to back down, after taking a substantial reputational hit. Major mea culpa here. The whole mess reminds me of the adware fights, where one program would act to disable another. Or the articles I’ve read about dueling spam botnets.

The real issue, of course, is that it’s difficult to charge directly for a Firefox extension. (Interesting posts on this here, here, and here – but no easy solutions.) So developers – even the ad-blockers – are ironically stuck with advertising, or shadier methods like search-bar hijacking.

I can’t help but feel that the ‘ad-blocker community’ missed a massive opportunity to be influential (and severely damaged their own ability to make a buck) by filtering out every type of advertisement. There’s ways to show ads that aren’t so irritating. There’s advertising programs that are far more respectful of user privacy than others. If the ad blockers were actually selective, they could appeal to a broader audience (no ad blocker here, anyway, because they’re far too indiscriminate) and could put some amount of pressure on advertising bodies to enact more user-friendly policies. There’s even potential for an accreditation business – ‘get your people-friendly publisher seal here.’ All of that dies with the scorched-earth approach to blocking.

Finally, NoScript is still blocking Ghostery through a Ghostery-specific CSS rule. This is especially vile, since Ghostery doesn’t affect NoScript’s revenue model in the slightest – it’s just the tool I use to be informed about the analytics and advertising technologies in use from site to site. The site owners’ claim that he doesn’t like the look of the CSS overlay is completely unacceptable – my browser, my computer, my ability to view the content in the manner of my choosing.

UPDATE 5/5/09: Giorgio responded in the comments and clarified his motivations for obscuring Ghostery – not to prevent people from uncovering the ad technology he’s using, but because it obscured his donation button. While I still would very strongly prefer he not mess with user intent, and do think that ultimately the use of an extension with a CSS overlay is the user’s choice, just like use of a Greasemonkey script or an ad blocker or NoScript itself, I was overly quick to judge when I called his motivations ‘vile’.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

David Cancel May 4, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Greg,

Thank you for the fantastic post! Great stuff on a nasty subject.

Gracias,
David

Greg May 4, 2009 at 6:54 pm

Dude: “my ability to view the content in the manner of my choosing.” – You know what the site looks like before it gets downloaded? Your ending comment sounds noble, but it doesn’t show how NoScript’s owners argument that they don’t like the CSS overlay is wrong.

Just… argh.

Giorgio Maone May 5, 2009 at 1:16 am

Just to clarify, the NoScript *program* NEVER blocked Ghostery: this would have been unacceptable as much as the ABP workaround.

But the CSS is in the *website*, and it doesn’t prevent Ghostery from working (the status bar info is still there).

Ghostery should use a notification bar like NoScript does: trying to delivery notifications overlaying the content is never a good idea, especially if it’s security or privacy related, because it’s entirely in the site’s rights and powers to tamper with it (hide, relocate, or even worse maliciously modifying its content to mislead users).

BTW, this was done not to hide any info from the user, but because the box covered the donation button.
Any web site can do the same, and will do it if you cover important parts of the page.

Now could we backpedal with the FUD?

Giorgio Maone May 5, 2009 at 3:41 am

Sorry for the multiple posts, but I had cookies off (CS Lite) and couldn’t see my them go through. You can delete the first two (the 3rd says it all). Thanks.

greg May 5, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Giorgio -

Don’t worry about the multiple posts.

Agreed on the semantic issue about ‘blocking’ – it’s not blocked, merely obscured (and unfortunately, there’s no other way for me to find this information – the red ghost won’t tell me what tools are being used.)

I do see your point about the CSS obscuring the donation button, and understand that you’d prefer Ghostery notifications to be in the chrome of the browser. And you absolutely do have the right to control your own CSS. That said, Ghostery is an important tool I use every day, and I really dislike your interfering with it – even if it’s an attempt to ensure people see your donation button. You can take up alternate ways to display web bugs with Ghostery’s creators, but I’d prefer you stopped interfering with this extension.

I’ll edit the post to refer people to the comments – and now your motiviations seem somewhat less than ‘vile’ – but I’m not taking it down.

You’ll find that I support your efforts to make a buck more than most people you deal with. Advertising’s not universally evil. I do think you’ll have trouble doing so in your line of work, though.

Erwin May 9, 2009 at 1:54 am

“I was overly quick to judge when I called his motivations ‘vile’.”

You are overly quick to say “Noscript blocks…” This insinuates to me that the plugin itself blocks ghostery which is according to Giorgio’s description not true.

I think you should correct and reword this.

Any web site has the right to battle browser behaviour or circumvent plugin behaviour. Just a cat-and-mouse game if you ask me. That is a complete different ballgame from on-disk editing the settings of another plug-in.

BTW I have ghostery installed and the window being displayed over the content annoys the hell outta me. I never bothered though to find out if I can disable it. :-)

. October 6, 2011 at 5:48 pm

“window being displayed over the content annoys the hell outta me” positioning it may be an option now. otherwise, userstyle.

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