AUSTIN, Texas — Facing criticism from two prominent stewards of digital content, a top executive for one of the internet’s most popular ad blockers on Friday defended the controversial practice of charging publishers a fee to allow certain advertisements to pass through its blocking software. The practice — through which publishers may be “whitelisted” from ad-blocking filters provided their ads conform to specific criteria — adds a broker-like dynamic to the relationship between publishers and advertisers.
But Ben Williams, head of operations at Adblock Plus, wholly rejected the argument that such an arrangement is tantamount to extortion. “If we can provide value, then we have to work to provide that value ... and we have to charge a certain amount for it,” he said.
His comment was made in response to criticism from Lewis DVorkin, chief product officer of Forbes Media, who discussed the plight of digital publishers here on the opening day of the South by Southwest interactive conference. A tense panel discussion focusing on the rise of ad-blocking technology mirrored the growing anxiety of digital publishers who lost an estimated $22 billion last year as a result of blocked ads.
Adblock Plus, which boasts more than 50 million users, launched its “Acceptable Ads” program in 2011 to fierce blowback from publishers and advertisers who accused it of running an unethical pay-to-play scheme. Under the program, Adblock lifts its filter for ads that meet certain guidelines set by an independent review board.
Williams characterized the program as a win-win, giving readers a much-deserved reprieve from the annoying, pop up-laden environment of digital advertising while still allowing publishers to deliver quality advertisements.
But DVorkin said the arrangement forces publishers into an almost impossible balancing act. Advertisers, he noted, pay good money for exactly the kind of bells and whistles that Adblock deems unacceptable, and many marketers are not interested in pouring money in to ad campaigns only to be forced into a box.
“To meet the requirements, and [still] to do what marketers want to do with certain ads is very, very hard,” DVorkin said. “It’s just very, very hard to meet the requirements, because the requirements that you want are rigid.”
Williams said Adblock’s prime focus is its users, not advertisers, and pointed out that people who download its software do it precisely because they’re sick of intrusive advertising. “We’ve found a way to serve those users ads that they will accept,” he said. “So we’re not going to compromise what we say we’re going to give to them just because marketers want to make things bright and buzzy and blinky.”
Marjorie Gray, digital brand manager for Dish Network, accused Adblock of playing God. “No offense, but who let you decide?” she said to Williams. “Who gave you guys the power to say this is what you can and can’t do and there’s no other way?”
“I would turn that question around to you: Who gave you the internet?” Williams countered, drawing raucous applause from the audience.
Adblock Plus was created a decade ago at the dawn of a new era of Google-dependent digital media. With centuries-old print newspapers struggling to adapt to a changing media landscape, newer, nimbler publishers like the Huffington Post learned they could use search-engine- optimization tactics to drive massive amounts of traffic to their sites and generate robust revenue from online display advertising.
But as digital ads became more and more intrusive, readers began to wonder if advertisers were trying to annoy them into submission.
Enter ad blockers, which offered readers much-welcome protection from the deluge of pop-ups, dancing animations and autoplay videos that now pollute many sites. Since its inception, ad-blocking technology has been controversial, but the topic hit a fever pitch last year after Apple allowed ad blockers on its Safari mobile browser for the first time. The move came as publishers were increasingly relying on mobile ad revenue for their bottom lines.
DVorkin, who has been chronicling Forbes Media’s attempt to experiment with new ways of tackling the problem, said ad blockers are despised not just by advertisers but by editorial staff in the Forbes newsroom, who say the filters discourage social sharing.
“Editors and producers don’t like ad blocking at all,” he said. “I put Ben in the newsroom, and it would look like the first ‘Jurassic Park.’”