The battle between advertising and ad blocking has been oversimplified. It's become a conflict over whether ads are good or not. And on Friday a major face of the ad-blocking side decided he wanted out of the fight.
Two days after Apple began letting people install apps to block ads within its Safari web browser, the man who created Peace, the most popular iOS9 ad blocker to date -- early Tumblr developer and Instapaper creator Marco Arment -- decided to pull the app that cost publishers their ad revenue and people $2.99 to download.
In a blog post published Friday announcing the decision, Mr. Arment explained that he didn't feel good about Peace's success because as much as it improves people's web-browsing experiences, it also hurts people that make a living from the ads his app blocked. The main problem with Peace was that it blocked all ads as opposed to blocking the biggest offenders and giving less objectionable ads a pass.
Peace required that all ads be treated the same — all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren't black and white. This approach is too blunt, and Ghostery [which Mr. Arment worked with to create Peace] and I have both decided that it doesn't serve our goals or beliefs well enough. If we're going to effect positive change overall, a more nuanced, complex approach is required than what I can bring in a simple iOS app.
The battle between advertising and ad blocking should be more nuanced than it is. It shouldn't be a battle between good and evil because ads as well as ad blockers are neither good nor bad. They're both.
Ads make it so that companies and content creators can be compensated for their work without passing the buck on to their audiences. Ad blockers can put an end to that state of affairs. However, ads can also invade people's privacy and put their security at risk. Ad blockers protect people by preventing little-known companies from monitoring individuals' browsing behavior and warding off ads that can be used to inject malware on people's devices. Ads make it so that people can consume a lot of content and use services like Google search and Facebook for no charge. Ad blockers can ensure that people are getting to that content more quickly.
And both ads and ad blockers can get in the way of that content. Sites carrying too many ads or that force an ad on people before they get to the content can turn people away from that content. And ad blockers can actually block that non-ad content.
For example, one of the most popular desktop ad blockers blocks the section atop Ad Age's home page listing the top articles. And some Reddit users have complained that they can't access Facebook's Messenger service on the social network's desktop site with an ad blocker disabled, even though it's an instant-messaging service and not an ad slot.
Ad blocking is a shotgun approach to a problem in need of a scalpel. The central question introduced by the ad-blocking issue shouldn't be: are ads good or bad? It should be more nuanced than that: what's a good ad, and how can those ads be delineated from the bad ones?
It's a question that Mr. Arment wrestled with before deciding to pull Peace. Mr. Arment initially tried to deal with the dilemma by taking a binary approach: no ads shall pass. Even ad formats that he was okay with, like those provided by ad network The Deck that appear atop Mr. Arment's personal blog, were blocked by Peace. He reasoned that it wouldn't be fair to cherry-pick which ads should or shouldn't be considered OK. But even then he didn't seem satisfied with that decision. From a blog post he published on the topic on Thursday:
Whether such "good" ads should be unblocked by default is worth considering. In the past, ad-blockers' attempts to classify "acceptable" ads have been problematic, to say the least. I don't know if that can be done well, but I'd consider it if it could.