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.