Last Tuesday Facebook announced in interviews with the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times that it will henceforth start implementing changes to way it serves up ads in order to evade of ad-blocker software.
Rather than admit that it wants to force people to look at ads even when they clearly don’t want to, Facebook presented the move as taking the moral high ground,
“This isn’t motivated by inventory; it’s not an opportunity for Facebook from that perspective. We’re doing it more for the principle of the thing. We want to help lead the discussion on this.”
A matter principle or not, if the initiative succeeds then Facebook’s revenue will see a sizeable increase. A recent study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) found that 26% of users surveyed block ads on (desktop) computers. And 15% do so on smart phones. This means that around 200 million people worldwide are using ad-blocker software.
Interestingly, ad-blocker users tend to be men 18-34 years old, and 40% of those surveyed thought they were using ad-blocker software even when they weren’t (thinking that their anti-virus software did this job)!
Facebook is hardly poor!
Not that Facebook is financially suffering anyway. According to its 2016 second quarter report, Facebook’s revenue jumped 63% to $6.24 billion from the second quarter of 2015. In large part this is because its mobile app, on which ads cannot be blocked, generates 84% of its ad revenue.
At the heart of the issue, though, is a philosophical battle. As Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, vice president of Facebook’s ads and business platform, noted,
“Facebook is ad-supported. Ad Facebook is ad-supported. Ads are a part of the Facebook experience; they’re not a tack ons are a part of the Facebook experience; they’re not a tack on.”
In a gesture clearly aimed at placating ad-hating users, however, Facebook has simultaneously announced that it will give users greater control over the ads they see,
“We’ve all experienced a lot of bad ads: ads that obscure the content we’re trying to read, ads that slow down load times or ads that try to sell us things we have no interest in buying. Bad ads are disruptive and a waste of our time.
Today, we’re announcing some changes to help with this problem. First, we’re expanding the tools we give people to control their advertising experience. Second, we’re providing an update on our approach to ad blocking on Facebook.”
Popular ad blocker Adblock Plus has been at the forefront of the pushback against this, and within a couple of days announced that it has updated its filters to work around Facebook’s “dark path”. As even it admitted at the time, however,
“This is still a cat-and-mouse game. Facebook might “re-circumvent” at any time.”
So it’s game on!
It is, of course, very much in the interests of Adblock Plus combat this development. It is a commercial company whose reason for existence (and hence its monetizing model) is 100% dependent on its ability to block ads.
Personally, I use a combination of Privacy Badger and uBlock Origin instead of Adblock Plus. These are both are highly effective open source non-profit alternatives. Facebook’s changes have made no impact whatsoever on my ad-free Facebook page.
A quick test shows that when I disable uBlock Origin, I see Facebook ads. This add-on therefore appears to be unaffected by Facebook’s changes (in other words, uBlock Origin continues to block ads on Facebook.)
As befits the fact that Privacy Badger is billed primarily as an anti-tracking rather than an ad-blocker add-on, Facebook ads are visible with just Privacy Badger enabled. But this was probably the case beforehand anyway, and it remains a fantastic anti-tracking add-on.
It is time to crack out the popcorn and enjoy the show. Companies such as Facebook have a huge incentive to win this war, but my gut instinct is that the ad-block cat is out of the bag. Until companies stop invading our privacy and tracking everything we do on the web in order to sell us stuff, then more and more people will look for ways evade this behavior. So go ad-blockers!