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’.

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