Is Ad-Blocking Software Immoral?

If you use software to block the display of ads on the internet, you have acted immorally. That’s the claim made by Arthur Zey, a project manager and engineer who has worked for Twitter and other technology companies.

Zey offered the claim in a Facebook post which germinated into a fascinating, highly intellectual, and surprisingly civil thread. He linked to this story from reporting on Google’s efforts to “punish AdBlock users with unstoppable YouTube video ads.” Of the effort, Zey wrote:

Good for Google. YouTube doesn’t run on the warm, fuzzy feeling you get watching cats do silly things.

In a follow-up comment, he expounded:

… YouTube relies on that ad revenue to operate. I think [the use of ad blocking software] amounts to taking the unearned to watch YouTube videos in this fashion…

I am not a fan of the righteous indignation that many have expressed [in response to my claim]. Whether you are the customer or the product, whatever your exact contractual relationship may be with the provider, you are on YouTube (and similar sites) to gain a value. And you know that that value is financed by your watching of ads (or, at least, their being displayed on your computer while you’re off taking a piss or whatever). I think that to use an automated, technological means to circumvent “paying one’s fair share” is distasteful at best.

Several commenters, including yours truly, sought to understand Zey’s moral claim by asking how it applies to other circumstances. For instance, is it immoral to skip past commercials recorded on a DVR? Is it immoral to leave a movie theater during the trailers, or show up late in an effort to avoid them?

no ads

Rey addressed those questions by drawing a distinction between “automated” and “manual” evasion:

Fast-forwarding through commercials, leaving during commercials, muting during commercials, and even using the “Skip Ad” functionality all have a manual element to them, and, in a sense, they are contemplated by the provider. That was part of the culture and the implicit understanding between provider and watcher. Would they rather you sit there, glued to your screen, and watch the commercial? Sure, but they have no illusions that you’re going to do that. Maybe they even expect that you’ll miss most commercials. But you’ll see some, and you’ll see part of some others. And many of these channels have other revenue streams, too (e.g., cable subscriptions, movie tickets).

What I find problematic–or at least suspect–about ad-blocking software is that’s it’s completely automated and completely insulates you from any marketing.

Another clarification that Zey offered distinguished between immorality and a violation of rights:

Something can be non-violative of rights and yet still be immoral. (For example, there are many ways of being misleading where you’re technically making true statements, but with the intent to deceive, where if the other party knew what you were up to, would tell you to get lost. I have done this before. I wasn’t caught, but it felt awful, and I learned a lot. I think it’s part of the *real-world experience* that informs my attitude here.)

Zey’s perspective provoked an engaging thread, open to the public, which readers may find intriguing.

I have to apply more thought to the issue. At face value, I’m not sure I buy the distinction between automated and manual evasion. In either case, the end result is the same. Whether I skip ads by physically evading them, or suppress their display with technology, I am avoiding engagement. How could I hold a moral obligation to let an ad run, but not to sit there and watch it? The content provider gains no value from my letting an ad play without watching it.

Commenter Kendall Justiniano expounds:

I’m not sure how I “earn” the right to watch YouTube videos commercial free by fast forwarding or using any other of the “manual” techniques you describe. And how that earning is somehow legitimate, but taking the effort to automate that earning is somehow not earning.

Indeed, Zey places manual action in a separate category from automated action. But either way, it’s volitional. If you make the decision that you don’t want to see any ads, what does it matter how you implement that choice?