Ad blockers and the social contract

Wednesday, February 1, 2017
by Cameron Shelley

Mark Scott notes that use of ad blocking software is on the rise world-wide.  The software attempts to prevent advertising on a web site from loading and displaying on a viewer's computer. 

Recent research suggests that 11% of Internet users globally employ one kind of this software or another.  That represents a 30% increase over its prevalence from a year ago.

Use of ad-blockers is a perennial source of conflict that is best understood in terms of a social contract.  In rough terms, a social contract is an understanding—formal or informal—regarding what rights and obligations different parties have when dealing with each other.

In my Design & Society class, we use the example of a cross-walk.  A cross-walk is designed to allow both pedestrians and drivers (among others) to share access to a single piece of roadway in a mutually beneficial way.  The key to this sharing is turn-taking, regulated by assigning each party the right-of-way in turn.

On one view, the social contract between viewers and owners of a web site is that viewers gain the right to access the site's content in exchange for the owner gaining the right to display advertising to viewers.  The arrangement is mutually beneficial: Viewers gain access to content they want to see while owners obtain revenue, which they may well use to generate further content.

On this view, ad blocking software abrogates the deal.  Viewers gain access to content without meeting their obligation to be exposed to advertising.

One problem with this view is that owners' rights to advertise may not be unconditional.  Viewers may find advertising unsightly or distracting.  As Scott points out, ads can also suck up a lot of resources, such as consuming a lot of data downloading slick videos for viewers who have limited data plans.

Furthermore, advertising can be creepy or intrusive.  Partly in order to make ads relevant to people, web sites often accumulate comprehensive visitor data.  One result can be ads that seem to follow people around as they browse.  Or, people may find the idea of personal dossiers on them bought and sold online disturbing.

So, what is the social contract between owners and viewers?  Does ad blocking software violate it? 

Such contracts are subject to renegotiation as the relevant technology changes.  An increase in the use of ad blocking software could just be due to an increase in the number of people on the Internet.  Or, it may be a step in this renegotiation process.