Facebook Risks Alienating its Users by Blocking Ad Blockers

Facebook is now able to block all ad blockers on its desktop website, enabling advertising to run unimpeded. The move has ignited a firestorm of discussion about the ethics of ad blocking: digital ads are irritating, but they also underpin the business model of the very digital publishers who provide content. Publishers as established as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are struggling with eroding ad sales. Wired, Forbes and NYT have also tried out techniques to counter ad blocking.

The New York Times reports that, according to anti-ad-blocking startup PageFair, about 200 million people globally use ad-blocking software on their computers, with another 420 million who use ad blockers on smartphones.

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Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth notes that, although “disruptive ads are an industry problem and the rise of ad blockers is a strong signal that people just don’t want to see them … ad blockers are a really bad solution.” NYT president/chief executive Mark Thompson emphasizes, “We need to spell this out clearly to our users. The journalism they enjoy costs real money and needs to be paid for. Advertising is a vital part of the revenue mix.”

Bosworth says that Facebook needs to “find a way to serve better ads.” According to The Wall Street Journal, “Facebook declined to comment when asked on what portion of its desktop users have ad-blocking software installed,” and reports that the company won’t block ad blocking software on mobile, from which the company reaps 84 percent of its ad revenue.

Facebook has “lost some desktop ad revenue as a result of ad blockers,” and considers the technology “enough of a threat” to add it as “a separate risk factor in its annual securities filing this year.”

To stop ad blockers, says NYT, “Facebook is taking aim at the signifiers in digital ads that blockers use to detect whether something is an ad.” Instead, the Facebook desktop site will “make ad content indistinguishable from non-advertising content,” which would be “costly and laborious” for ad blockers to work around. To allow users some control over ads served, Facebook also revamped its ad preferences tool to “serve more relevant ads.”

“We want people to help us do a better job with ads, rather than to fundamentally alter the way the service is rendered,” says Bosworth.

By blocking ad blockers, says WSJ, “Facebook risks turning off some of its 1.7 billion monthly users who prefer not to see ads while browsing the Internet.” Ad-blocking providers, including Eyeo and Adblock Plus, have also come under criticism for accepting payment from companies “in exchange for letting their ads through its filter.” Facebook, says Bosworth, is not one of those companies.