Theft of Services

August 01, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

An interesting e-mail showed up in my inbox the other day. It asked, in part: "Do you consider those who use ad blockers while reading your site to be stealing content?" On the surface, this may seem like a ridiculous suggestion, but I can assure you it's not as cut-and-dried as it might seem. This is actually a hot topic for those who publish on-line and rely on advertisement revenue for their financial well-being. There are those who are considering using tools that will block their sites to anyone who has an ad-blocker turned on.

There is a persuasive argument that those who use ad blockers are hurting the bottom line. There are two methods by which web site publishers are paid. The first, and most lucrative, is on a per-click basis. Whenever a reader clicks on an ad and allows the associated page to load, the website where the ad appears receives a certain amount of money. It might be a couple of pennies. It might be as much as a quarter (the actual amount depends on a lot of factors). Obviously, if an ad blocker is employed, those reading the site never see the ads and never have a chance to click through.

The second method of revenue accrual comes from a model called "cost per impression" (CPM). This means that, for every 1000 times an ad is loaded, regardless of whether it is clicked on or not, the website publisher receives a certain amount of money - anywhere from pennies to dollars. This is how sites derive revenue even from those who don't click on ads. However, if an ad blocker is in play, the ads don't load, no impressions are recorded, and the publisher doesn't get anything.

The average person who stops by my site three times per week, reads a few ReelThoughts and new reviews, then clicks on an ad when leaving probably generates around $0.75 per week for me (give or take). Someone with similar surfing habits who doesn't click on ads maybe generates $0.05. I don't want to play the MPAA's game of saying I'm "losing" this much money when someone visits the site with an ad blocker on, but it's clear that there is some degree of unrealized revenue when a large number of readers fall into this category. I can't quantify the loss but I can qualify it. When I surf the Net, I never use ad blockers because I'm cognizant that there's a tacit partnership in place. I get the content I'm looking for without reaching into my wallet and the person who provides the content gets paid. If the site is overrun with ads to the point where it's difficult to get to the content, I simply leave and don't come back.

Back to the original question: Do I consider it to be a theft of services to read ReelViews with an ad blocker engaged? No. "Theft" is too harsh a word. "Freeloader" is perhaps a better term. There's nothing illegal about freeloading but it is gauche. It's a violation of that unwritten contract I mentioned above. You're getting the content you want while I get nothing in return. Consider the impact on the web economy if everyone was to use an ad blocker all the time. No one would get paid and sites would close down by the millions.

The bottom line is that I put the reviews up because I want people to read them. I would rather they read them with an ad blocker engaged than not read them at all. That shouldn't be a choice I'm forced to make, however. From a revenue standpoint, if 100% of my readers used ad blockers, it would be like having zero readers. Turning off an ad blocker or disabling it for a site is a way to show support for the work of that publisher. If a site has ads, regardless of whether it's a corporate site or a "mom and pop" address, the revenue from those ads means something. Can ads be irritating? Of course they can. I would love to run ReelViews without them (and that's why I held off for so long before incorporating them), but that's not reality. The idea behind an ad blocker is to make surfing the web a cleaner and less cluttered experience for the reader. The impact is far less rosy for those whose income sources are being stripped away.