(...) Arguments against ad blocking tend to focus on the potential economic harms. Because advertising is the dominant business model on the internet, if everyone used ad-blocking software then wouldn’t it all collapse? If you don’t see (or, in some cases, click on) ads, aren’t you getting the services you currently think of as “free”—actually for free? By using ad-blocking, aren’t you violating an agreement you have with online service providers to let them show you ads in exchange for their services? Isn’t ad blocking, as the industry magazine AdAge has called it, “robbery, plain and simple”?
(...) There is no paid version of Facebook. Most websites don’t give you the option to pay them directly. Meaningful governmental regulation is unlikely. And the “attention economy” can’t fix itself: players in the ecosystem don’t even measure the things they’d need to measure in order to monetize our intentions rather than our attention. Ultimately, the ethical challenge of the attention economy is not one of individual actors but rather the system as a whole (a perspective Luciano Floridi has termed “infraethics”).
In reality, ad blockers are one of the few tools that we as users have if we want to push back against the perverse design logic that has cannibalized the soul of the Web.
If enough of us used ad blockers, it could help force a systemic shift away from the attention economy altogether—and the ultimate benefit to our lives would not just be “better ads.” It would be better products: better informational environments that are fundamentally designed to be on our side, to respect our increasingly scarce attention, and to help us navigate under the stars of our own goals and values. Isn’t that what technology is for?
Given all this, the question should not be whether ad blocking is ethical, but whether it is a moral obligation. The burden of proof falls squarely on advertising to justify its intrusions into users’ attentional spaces—not on users to justify exercising their freedom of attention.
James Williams is a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology