The Ethics of Ad-Blocking


One of the features of Apple’s new iOS 9 is the ability to block content when using the Safari mobile browser. Since much of the current web content is financed by ads, marketers and content providers have expressed opposition, claiming that the foundation of providing web content as we know it is threatened. The usual narrative is this: users won’t pay for content, so the only way web publishers can pay for providing content is through advertising.

The odd thing is that the ad model first emerged in a decidedly low tech context. Traditional newspapers have always used classified and display ads to pay for a large part of the cost of delivering their content. I didn’t block those ads, or stop reading the paper. So why do I use online ad blockers?

Online ads are fundamentally different than the traditional newspaper ads. Online ads track your browsing and reading behavior for the sole purpose of creating, and expanding, a personal dossier. When I close my daily paper, the ads are gone. When I close the window of a shopping site, whatever I looked has been read and stored to track my future travels in cyberspace, to create a detailed record of my likes and preferences so as to anticipate what I might like and send me those ads.

The holy grail of marketers (and that includes the purveyors of personal data like Facebook, Google and the entire social media forest) is to deliver an ad for a product to me at the very moment I am most likely to look for just that type of product. All of us will fall prey to advertising. Nobody is immune. It is only a question of timing and choice of product. The old newspaper ad representsed the scattershot approach to marketing. Throw an ad out there and see who will act on it. In the internet age, that’s no longer good enough. Today the goal is to know my most intimate details so as to eliminated the guesswork in determining what I want and when I want it.

First, I consider that an unacceptable invasion of privacy. As we have learned courtesy of Edward Snowden, the large marketers who build those massive databases routinely collude with government authorities. There is no firewall between private and governmental access to my dossier. That alone ought to be enough reason to block online ads and trackers.

But there is an even more fundamental issue at stake. I change, all the time. Sure, there are some habits and ideas that have been with me for a long time, but there are plenty of new ones, too. The dossier the marketers have established for me puts me in box, it says these are Michael Niemann’s material desires and dreams. It denies that change. New items might be added to the dossier as time goes by, but nothing is ever deleted. I have been reduced to an outdated collection of consumption decisions. Whatever dreams I might have are irrelevant unless they manifest themselves in the purchase of a commodity. Once privacy is gone for good, people I encounter will relate to me on the basis of what I bought, not who I am. And then capitalism has achieved its ultimate goal, substituting contractual relations for all other human relations. That’s why I use ad-blockers.

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