There’s some debate on the legality of web ad blocking software.

It seems the kerfuffle caused by fringe religious fundy Danny Carlton by his Why Firefox is Blocked site which I wrote about a couple of weeks back is still drawing some attention here and there. The New York Times wrote about it as did a couple of other news sites and now the folks at CNet.com has an article up that discusses the legality of the software:

Tomorrow’s legal fight may be over Web browser add-ons that let people avoid advertisements. These add-ons are growing in functionality and popularity, which has led legal experts we surveyed this week to speculate about when the first lawsuit will be filed.

If ad-blockers become so common that they slice away at publishers’ revenues, “I absolutely would expect to see litigation in this area,” said John Palfrey, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

The article goes on to mention something I wasn’t already aware of which is that a few websites — MySpace.com, Six Apart’s Live Journal, the Chicago Sun-Times, and a Fox TV Houston affiliate — have language in their service agreements that says you agree not to block ads on their services. In some cases (MySpace.com) it appears to be directed more at the person setting up a profile page on the site than on the visitors, but some of them are aimed at visitors to the site.

For the moment, however, a lobbying group representing the online ad industry has said it doesn’t have any plans to sue anyone and would really rather not do so:

The Interactive Advertising Bureau, the lobbying arm for the online ad industry, says it isn’t readying a legal offensive at this point. Mike Zaneis, the organization’s vice president of public policy, says he wants to work with software developers and consumers to come up with a middle ground on what he calls “an issue that is just now ripening.”

“We don’t want to go down a route that would seem adversarial at all,” Zaneis said. “People are free to ignore ads, and they often do that, but when you have a third party blocking those ads, that’s the real problem.” He said IAB is “looking at all the options.”

Any lawsuit would likely invoke two arguments: copyright infringements are taking place (through derivative works), and the Web site’s terms of service agreement is being violated.

“From a pure legal point of view, a Web site can do anything it wants, so to speak,” said Michael Krieger, an intellectual property and business lawyer with the firm Willenken Wilson Loh & Lieb in Los Angeles. “That’s a little overstating it, obviously, but suppose to get into Google, you first have to click ‘I agree, I’m not blocking ads.’ I think it’s perfectly within their rights to do that.”

It may be a moot point to begin with, however, as even if they did sue the creator of AdBlock Plus it’s doubtful they could actually kill it thanks to it’s status as Open Source software:

While statistics for ad-blocking tools are hard to come by, an estimated 2.5 million users worldwide currently run Adblock Plus, and an even greater number has downloaded the utility, lead developer Wladimir Palant said in an e-mail interview. He estimated the product is attracting 300,000 new users each month after an initial spike in adoption attributed to users switching over from Adblock, a related utility with a development path that has diverged.

Palant said he believes Adblock Plus is in “no way illegal” and suggested that suing companies like his ‘out of business’ won’t do anyone any good. He added that no one to his knowledge makes money, directly or indirectly, off the software.

In addition, because the source code is publicly available, development would likely continue in another nation with different copyright laws. “The software that I am making is open source, even if I stop working on it—each Adblock Plus user has a copy, and any of them could develop it further,” Palant said. “If the advertisers have a problem, they will not be able to solve it in the legal way. As long as people want to block ads, they will be able to do this.”

Personally I don’t use ad blocking software myself, though I have tried it in the past. Most ads on websites are innocuous enough that I don’t have a problem with them and, though it’s rather rare, there has been the occasional ad that actually was something I was interested in. Some ads are more annoying than others, however, such as the interstitial ads that pop up when you’re browsing from one page on a website to another on the same site (or worse, pop up before you ever see any content at all), but most sites that use them have reduced the frequency enough that I can tolerate them. The two sorts that most tempt me to install ad blocking software however are the ones that make noise and, most hated of all, the ones that pop up over top of content requiring you to click a “close” button to get rid of the fucking things.

The obtrusiveness of ads actually goes a long way to determining what websites I’m willing to visit. I used to hit IGN.com’s sites daily, but they got so hung up on interstitials popping up every two clicks along with big loud flash overlays in the middle of whatever you were trying to read that I rarely go by any of their websites anymore. Their content isn’t that compelling that installing an ad blocker would be worth the effort, especially when the same news can be garnered from a dozen other similar sites without those annoying ads. It also helps that I do a lot of my reading via RSS feeds these days which has the benefit that A) very few of them have any ads at all and B) the ones that too are currently limited to static images at the bottom of an article every so often. That’s something I can easily live with.

The truth is I have no problems with websites trying to make a buck or two through advertising on their pages, hell I’ve got Google ads to try and offset the cost of running SEB myself so I’d be a hypocrite if I did, and I treat most of them the same way I treat most television commercials; as a necessary evil that I can usually live with and occasionally write snarky blog entries about. Whether or not it’s legal to block web ads is not something I could say either way, but I suspect that most rulings on the issue would be similar to ones in the past in regards to VCR users being able to fast-forward through ads. Back then the courts said not enough people did it to really bother with prohibiting it. And, as I said before, it’s not even clear that banning it would actually stop it from happening as the genie is already out of the bag.

As an aside, the Google ads experiment here on SEB has been a mixed bag so far. Since I put them on the site back in May I’ve earned in total to date a whopping $48.12, which is a bit over what it costs to run SEB for one month. The only problem is that Google doesn’t pay out revenue until you’ve earned up $100 so it may be awhile before I see it. That’s actually a better result than I had expected, though certainly nothing that would let me quit my day job and become a professional full-time blogger. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve only implemented the one ad in the left hand bar as opposed to the two or three instances they recommend, plus I’ve not put in AdSense search or a AdSense referral button which both would also add some revenue. Guess I just wasn’t cut out to be a dot.com millionaire.

10 thoughts on “There’s some debate on the legality of web ad blocking software.

  1. I too have no problem with online ads, but the ad agencies need to realize, the only reason people have installed or created Adblock Plus is because of the intrusive ads.  And because shadier companies install spyware and adware through ads.  Get rid of the intrusive ads, and the spyware and adware ads and you will remove the desire for installing Adblock Plus.

    Les, I applaud you for not selling your soul to the advertising industry.  I for one appreciate a well managed site that is easy to read and doesn’t have some annoying ass telling me I can win a free iPod.

  2. Placing ads alongside articles doesn’t bother me (I’ve always thought it was a good use of what used to be dead space back 12 years ago), but the in-your-face click-me shit does turn me off of going to a site.  That and the seizure inducing flashing ads.  I don’t use Ad block; Firefox’s popup blocker and No Script work fine for me.

  3. I believe most people submit themselves to ads because they’re either desensitized to their ubiquity or because there’s no technical means to filter them out.

    The long and short of it that I myself hate ads and have consequently used ad-blocking software of some kind or other for years and years (these days it’s Abblock+, NoScipt, and Flashblock). I’ll continue to do so even if there are legal impediments.

    As a legal layman, I have no opinion about the legal arguments presented, but from my point of view, pursuing either argument would mean suing their (prospective) customers and not the authors of ad-blocking software. Not a smart business move.

    Oh, and this strikes me as illogical:

    People are free to ignore ads, and they often do that, but when you have a third party blocking those ads, that’s the real problem

    It’s me who’s ignoring ads and not a third party and I do this by way of a technical solution that doesn’t pollute my browser with ads to begin with. At most, whoever maintains the filter lists saves me the bother to train the filters myself.

  4. I used to get so irritated by the underlined, pop-up text from IntelliText and Kontera that I could scream.

    Finally, I found a solution.  Customized hosts files.  As a great bonus, most of these hosts files block ads from third parties.

    Even if they somehow pull off legal action against ad blocking software, there’s little if any chance that they will be able to prevent users from sharing customized hosts files to block content that they wish not to see.

    If you’d like to read more about hosts files here’s a good link: http://www.mvps.org/winhelp2002/hosts.htm

  5. I hate everything that blinks and moves. They make it difficult to concentrate on the actual contents. There’s no surer way to get on my adblock list than to have an ad that moves in some way.

    I’ve got nothing against web pages making a few cents on ads, although I think that it’s a bit silly that someone thinks that I should be forced to watch those ads, when I’m the last person to waste my hard-earned green on the crap sold on the tubes. Same goes to TV commercials.

    In any case, I think they’ve got quite balls (or too little brains) to claim that adblocking infringes on copyrights. It would be no different than claiming that wearing a blindfold while watching the telly amounts to creating a derivative work.

  6. It’s more like claiming that if you had a third party whose job it was to tell you to look away from ad content when it appeared on the television, that party would be liable for damages to the ad company for providing a service directly entirely at disrupting revenue of the ad company or network.

    I think it’s hot air. I think it’s an easy enough presentation to even the most technophobic judge that anyone trying to make the case would get laughed out of court and set precedents that would make him a villain to his peers.

  7. I always use Adblock Plus on my personal computers and I love it. When I browse using a public computer, I am always shocked by all the annoying, ugly, useless ads that show up on my favorite sites. Yuck! Most Internet Ads are much, much worse than TV ads. Many of them point to scams, substandard products, etc. At least some TV ads make you aware of new products.
    The only places where I make no attempt to block ads is in Google & Google services such as Gmail. Why? Because those ads are discreet, relevant, sometimes useful, and always text only.
    Frankly, I put a lot of the blame for ad-blocking on the advertisers. If they didn’t bombard me with graphically intense, useless, fraudulent ads at every turn, I wouldn’t feel the need to block them, now would I? Discreet, relevant text ads and simple, small graphical ads that enhance a page’s content instead of disrupting it are the best way to get my attention. Otherwise, I’m not giving up my ad-blocker, even if you make using one illegal. As for blocking ad-blocking users from using your site, that’s just silly. There’s always another site I can use that won’t block me. Your loss.

  8. Sites and television channels have every right to put ads on their sites. They don’t however (yet that is) have the right to a profit, or to force me to view said cruft.

    A custom HOSTS file, AdBlock Plus, NoScript, QuickJava, and FlashBlock ftw.

    (Oh how much better the interwebs were before ActiveX and Java).

  9. I think it’s hot air. I think it’s an easy enough presentation to even the most technophobic judge that anyone trying to make the case would get laughed out of court and set precedents that would make him a villain to his peers.

    There have been lawsuits against spam lists. IIRC, the spam lists have lost some of them. The filter lists of AdBlock(+) and spam lists apply to somewhat different scenarios, but never assume that common sense has a place in case law.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.