The Hidden Side of Ad Blocking Software

This weekend during a gathering with some friends, the conversation turned to a discussion about the role of advertising in financially supporting the free media and free websites to which our society has become so accustomed. This discussion was fueled by the recent Apple decision to allow its users to download ad-blocking software onto their devices. The company’s announcement tapped into many of the same narratives woven into our understanding of the Internet as “a democratic space, one that promises to provide everyone with access to the articulation of self within the public—even global—sphere” (Nakamura, 137). In this case, democracy looks like the freedom to navigate the World Wide Web without the pesky interruption of advertising.

Photo by Courtesy of Pexels.

Normally, I would be elated to reduce consumerism’s presence in my life, but in this case, the scenario is not quite that simple. In fact, the liberation that Apple offers is quite deceiving because it only liberates customers from the presence of most companies while Apple remains in a position to obtain our personal data and market to us. In fact, in this scenario, it is the smaller companies, who heavily rely on advertising to support their business, which will lose out. It’s another instance of Amazon versus the local bookstore, in which Amazon’s mighty web presence and convenience of experience puts the smaller, less resourced, player out of business.

Without an advertising option, most companies will likely have to revert to a pay-wall to sustain their online operating costs. If this shift does occur, it will dramatically shape the Internet landscape and the choices we make online. For most middle and upper class individuals, however, while this change might be frustrating, we will still largely be able to access the information we need–just at a price. We are perfectly capable of paying for a subscription even if we might resent the idea of the Internet no longer being free.

Obtained on Wikimedia Commons. Website malfunctioning so was unable to obtain specific attribution. Please click on image to follow through to its site of origin.
Obtained on Wikimedia Commons. Website malfunctioning so was unable to obtain specific attribution. Please click on image to follow through to its site of origin.

For a large subset of the global population, however, web advertising is what made the Internet accessible. (Of course, there is another subset without hardware or WiFi that doesn’t have access even when the Internet is supposedly free.) The implications of race and class woven into Apple’s decision, however, have been largely overlooked. Instead most of the furor has been a privileged reaction to the now-embedded expectation that our browsing should not coincide with the entry of credit card digits. So let’s seriously ask the question: if the Internet is supposed to be a tool of democracy, how will ad-blocking software impact Internet accessibility for all people. If many of our prominent (and not-so-prominent) websites are hidden behind paywalls that much of the global population cannot afford, how will that change cyberspace? What will happen to smaller companies that previously relied on advertising to offer their free services?

Even more importantly, what can we do in response? I suspect ubiquitous ad-blocking software is now inevitable, but is there another solution besides paywalls? For one potential solution, I think of Hulu who has now offered a paid commercial-free subscription service to their website, while those who don’t mind the commercials pay less or nothing.

What are your thoughts?

Media Cited:
Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York and London: Routledge: 2002.
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  1. I attended a conference this week on this very issue! It was hosted by the Greens party so definitely on the liberal side, but they discussed the undemocratic nature of the internet. Specifically stating that the Internet should be treated as a public good, rather than a commodity. In this light, they suggested the government should subsidize an ad-free internet that is accessible to all. DG connect within the EU commission is also working on the accessibility side of this issue, but not much progress has been made. Interested issue! Sorry for writing a blog post in a comment.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!! The question of treating the internet as a public good is fascinating – one worth its own blog post! It would be a huge paradigm shift and one that would need to occur globally to be properly effective. Plus a government subsidy would essentially mean we continue to pay for the Internet but with our taxes instead of ads. How would that work? You should write something about this from your perspective. I’m fascinated to know more.

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