If I could block $1.5 billion in ads

This past weekend I was at a party for Super Bowl 50. A football game has four 15-minute quarters (and for the Super Bowl, a 30-minute halftime show). Super Bowl 50 ran about four hours, almost every play punctuated by advertisements. These spots cost $5 million per 30 seconds. I know most of it is downtime and I’m not missing anything, but I still fantasized that I could block these ads as easily as I can online.

AdBlock Plus (ABP) launched in 2006. The open-source browser extension checks website elements against a list of advertisement locations. If there’s a match, the web browser won’t load that element. AdBlock Plus became the most popular extension for Firefox, Chrome, and Opera. Eyeo, the German company that owns ABP, announced an “acceptable ads” program in 2011. Advertisements and sites belonging to a whitelist are shown to ABP users, who can opt out. Small to medium sites that apply and meet Eyeo’s criteria are whitelisted for free (after waiting for review). Larger sites pay a share of revenue to Eyeo to get through. The ABP licensing fee is 30% of additional earnings from whitelisting. Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Taboola and Outbrain are some of the giants Eyeo supports.

Taboola, Outbrain, and others don’t provide ads, but “sponsored links.” These are “news” stories like “50% Stock Market Collapse Looming (Prepare!)” and “11 Child Celebrities You Wouldn’t Recognize Today!” While less distracting than the flashing banner ads of yesteryear, I can’t say I prefer them. Although labeled, sponsored links are insidious, often pretending to be legitimate news.

When “acceptable ads” arrived, I immediately opted out. Later, I switched from ABP to uBlock Origin (not to be confused with uBlock). uBlock Origin is also open source, uses less system resources, and doesn’t include a default whitelist. I unblock sites I use regularly based on my criteria, rather than Eyeo’s, which I will provide here.

Advertisements must not:

  • track me or personalize themselves based on my communications and history
  • pretend to be real content
  • be animated or play sound
  • execute any code on my computer

Publishers argue that advertising is necessary for the internet to function, but I don’t believe so. In the early days of the internet, before massive ad networks, most websites were run by individuals as passion projects. Clickbait, misleading headlines, and quick-to-produce low-quality content all spawned over and eventually conquered the internet, because they are the easiest ways to make money with ads.

Advertisements aren’t the only option to pay for a website and staff. In the past year, several sites I follow have eliminated ads. They now collect money directly from readers through services like Patreon. Wikipedia is one of the world’s top 10 most popular sites, and is ad-free through regular donation drives. This model can’t work for everyone, but I’m pretty sure we’re better off without the BuzzFeeds of the world.

While it’s not possible to cut a live football game to just an hour of action, we can control our web browsing experience.  Keep in mind that supporting the people who create the content you like is important, but if you aren’t blocking ads already, you should be.