Is Ad Blocking Akin To Theft?

joshspeyerddtData-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Josh Speyer, CEO at AerServ.

Israeli startup Shine recently made waves in the mobile ad tech world with its ad blocking platform, which enables users to remove ads from the app experience. Shine argues that mobile ads cost users 10% to 15% of data plans, deplete battery life and decrease load times, so users should have the option to block them.

Ad blocking is a user “right,” given the expense of bandwidth for both wireless carriers and users, claimed Roi Carthy, Shine’s chief marketing officer, who also equated ad tech with malware.

The number of active ad blockers grew 70% between 2013 and 2014 to 144 million, according to PageFair and Adobe. At the same, each of the top apps reported by App Annie for 2014 are free and ad-supported, which clearly signals that consumers don’t want to spend money on apps.

But the cost of creating and distributing an app is considerable. Consumers don’t want to pay for an app and don’t want to view ads, but they still want to enjoy unimpeded use of the app? I believe that’s simply unreasonable.

Malware: A Just Comparison?

What about that comparison between ad tech and malware? It’s true that there is malware out there masquerading as advertising, but the percentage of malicious mobile ads is extremely small. However, services like Shine and AdBlocker are taking a shotgun approach to ad blocking, enabling users to completely block any and all ads within apps and websites, not just those identified as malicious.

If users don’t want to pay for apps via subscription and download fees, advertising revenue is necessary to support operations and production. Ad-blocking technology is technically stepping in between users and publishers and stealing that revenue. The mission of ad blockers also seems less altruistic when you consider that they also charge ad networks to be whitelisted, or not blocked.

Without advertising, publishers will be forced to find alternative ways to monetize their apps, such as charging higher download and subscription fees, putting up paywalls or integrating ads that can’t be detected and blocked.

Obviously, this is an untenable solution, especially considering recent discussions about net neutrality and the overwhelmingly negative response to the idea of paid access to content. Given the fact that our mobile devices are essentially mini-computers these days, the situation is comparable. So what can be done to alleviate the problem?

The Wrong Approach

If the issue of concern is malware, blocking ads is the wrong approach. It has been shown that blocking ads is less effective at deterring infections on mobile devices than the real-time monitoring offered by services such as Lookout. So even if a user blocks all ads because they are afraid of the very low risk of their devices being compromised, they aren’t even going about that in the best way.

If the concern is simply that users don’t want their app and mobile game experiences interrupted by ads, they should pay the app or site for the privilege of an ad-free experience. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and when developers spend significant hours and dollars creating apps, there is no such thing as free content. If users want to use an app, they’ll have to pay for it either with real money or with their time spent viewing an ad.

Unfortunately, the legal aspect of ad blocking is also murky. It is being examined in courts around the world, but many are finding that ad blocking is a legal enterprise and mobile device owners have the legal right to control what appears on their screens. Many in the mobile ad tech world are nervous about the precedents being set, but it is also true that developers and publishers have the right to control access to the content they own.

In the absence of a solution that compensates content creators, the next step will most likely be for apps and sites to block content from users who block their ads, especially if courts continue to side with the ad blockers. They could implement a method to detect when ads are blocked and then take over the page, requiring the user to pay in order to continue viewing the content.

I believe one thing is clear: Ad blocking is akin to theft from marketers and will do far more harm than good to users.

Follow AerServ (@AerServ) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Accusing the consumer of theft is quite far from what the goal of marketers should be. Let’s keep in mind that the internet was there long before the first banner ad popped up and it was always a media of free information.
    Although ads help power the free flow of information, in their most intrusive forms they are not user friendly. Add to that the fact that marketers often track non-tech savvy users along..
    We as a business are anything but the victims.
    We, as marketers, should be thinking of ways to be less intrusive, more informative, more useful, rather than playing the blame game. Ad blocking is here, so we need to deal with it.

  2. Randy

    How is this any different than fast forwarding through DVRed TV commercials? Do we consider that stealing from the TV networks?

    • The difference is that I’m paying a monthly subscription fee for programming. To the websites I use, I don’t pay them anything.

  3. If blocking ads is theft then what is the tracking, logging, profiling and selling of the users data without their explicit permission?

    Read the comments about ad blockers on the web and you’ll find that almost all of them are related to the poor ad experience and tracking. People dont mind ads if they’re entertaining or innocuous but as soon as you shove them in their face and or do less than scrupulous things… they hate them. Blame yourselves for its entirely the fault of digital marketers and the the companies that promote the current model of jamming as many ads into a screen as possible and tracking everything people do, see, read and share.

  4. It's not theft

    The question of legality is frankly the wrong one. We live in a world where there are truly incredible apps and websites that we can access for free.

    But the truth is they’ve never really been free. They have business mods that rely on advertising. People have come to expect those apps and sites regardless of whether or not they block ads.

    But now that adblocking has gone mainstream we have to ask ourselves how important the ecosystem of free sites and apps is to us… Because it *will* go away.

    The web is already filled with pay sites and services and they are increasing in number.

    If we want “free” to work we have to help it work. Not fight it. And we can’t pretend it’s our right to access these servers, or that developers will continue to create for us.

  5. It is unclear who is actually “stealing”.

    There are several mitigating factors advertisers must account for in determining where budgets should be allocated, namely impressions not seen by a human. Do you have an idea of how much ad blocking software contrubutes to wasted spend vis-a-vis fraud/non-viewable ads?

    Wouldn’t a more apt comparison be that publishers are stealing from advertisers by charging for an ad that was never seen?

    Is the onus on publishers to create a system where advertisers, who are actually compensating content creators, realize the benefit of their spend? The volume of wasted impressions, creates downward pressure on the predicted value of impressions, suppressing CPMs. This incents publishers to take actions, purchasing traffic or placing more ads on a page, that compromises the experience for both end users and advertisers.

  6. “…the overwhelmingly negative response to the idea of paid access to content…”

    This claim is unsubstantiated.

  7. 1) the notion of bot traffic is vastly related to ad networks/exchanges alone.
    2) people are paying for good content and experiences.
    3) the number of people who are ad blocking on free apps is not that large, this is a big topic about a small group of cheap people. There will always be these people and folks that most advertisers don’t care to deal with.

    All this leading to the fact that ad blocking is not akin to theft. Ad blocking is another hurdle marketers and advertisers have to get over. Content marketing, social marketing or don’t worry about the 2% of ad blockers out there and worry about the experience and message you are serving the other 98%…..%’s are estimates for meaning.