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Ad blocking: It might be time for an FTC assist

December 10, 2015 | By Chris Pedigo, SVP Government Affairs – DCN @Pedigo_Chris

This week, we released our 2015 DCN Ad Blocking Report  which shows that 33% of U.S. consumers are very likely or somewhat likely to try ad blocking software in the next three months. Coupled with research by Adobe and PageFair that showed a 41% increase in the use of ad blocking from 2014 Q2 to 2015 Q2 it’s clear we’re seeing a steady, significant rise in consumers using ad blocking software.

Interestingly, Doc Searls notes that ad blocking (which he calls “the biggest boycott in human history”) started spiking right around the time that Do Not Track (DNT) signals began to be ignored. As we’ve written before, we think consumers have been actively searching for ways to control their online experience and better protect their privacy. They started with clearing cookies, then enabling DNT and now they’re blocking ads altogether.

As our research and that by others has noted, ad blocking software meets a number of consumer needs, a major one being poor online experiences due to advertising. Some ads can be intrusive and annoying and pages load much faster without ads (much less endless third party calls).

Consumers are also concerned about their privacy and are looking for better ways to opt out of having their data collected with little transparency. Consumers are concerned about their security and the various unknown entities having access to and potentially compromising their devices.

While meeting consumer experience needs is laudable and an important wake up call for industry, the other side of the coin may be fraught with harmful and shady business practices.

As I wrote in September, ad blockers shouldn’t block conversations between a publisher and a consumer – this kind of back and forth dialogue helps the publisher better understand and meet consumer needs while it also helps educate consumers. After all, let’s keep in mind that most early adopters of ad blocking software tend to be young males (hint: I was once one of them – we didn’t always appreciate the big picture).

Also, as has been reported, ad blocking companies will accept payments to whitelist ads from companies. Of course, those ads need to meet a set of acceptable ads criteria. But those criteria tend to be nebulous and interpreted behind closed doors while the payment is being negotiated, which doesn’t make for a healthy marketplace. Indeed, it is often the case that the ads that are whitelisted are text-only ads that add absolutely nothing to the overall experience for the consumer. I would argue that, rather than read any conceivable text ad, most consumers would rather laugh at a new Geico ad or mock one of Matthew McConaughey’s ethereal, self-indulgent car commercials, especially if that ad was stripped down to a minimum of 3rd party tags and did not track me across the web.

Regardless of what ads should be shown or whether they should be shown at all, I think we can all agree that disrupting an important dialogue between consumers and publishers and shaking down publishers to whitelist ads are not the hallmarks of a healthy ecosystem. It would be helpful for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to examine whether these business practices and agreements are undermining the ability of content creators and consumers to find a value exchange that works for both. The FTC plays an important role in keeping our industry healthy by working with good faith actors to establish best practices, shining a light on new, emerging technologies and bringing enforcement cases to end shady business practices.

Needless to say, these issues are top of mind for DCN and the premium publishers we represent. We’re looking forward to an opportunity to explore this topic, among others, at our December 16th event The Consumer Rules: Lessons from Ad Blocking. It will be held at the Newseum in Washington, DC from 8:30 to 11:00 AM on Wednesday, December 16. Because solving the issues causing and caused by ad blocking requires wide ranging participation, we’re hosting an interactive discussion featuring Jed Hartman, Chief Revenue Officer of the Washington Post; Heather West, Senior Policy Manager, at Mozilla; Ben Barokas, CEO of Sourcepoint; and Fatemeh Khatibloo, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research. Following the panel, we will have a fireside chat with FTC Commissioner Julie Brill.

It should be a lively discussion; it is certainly an important one.

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