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Even on Madison Avenue, few people would argue that 90 percent of advertising falls somewhere between mediocre and god-awful. So should we -- should the public -- be required to look at bad ads? To look at ads at all? Of course not; it's a free country. We turn the page. We flip the channel. We give silent praise to the inventor of the mute button. We won't be forced to wear eyelid-clamps, Clockwork Orange-style, and watch atrocities perpetrated by clueless pitchmen.

But some people think that exercising this elementary choice -- to watch or not to watch -- isn't playing fair. Take Charles Arruda, vice president of Channelseek, a service that offers a guide to live events on the Web. Arruda is crying foul because Web surfers are increasingly using programs like At Guard, Web Washer and Internet Junkbuster Proxy to automatically filter out ads. Such software endangers his revenue stream, and that of all other ad-supported sites. "It's like a shoplifter coming in and stealing your money," he seethes, drawing a comparison with network TV, which can only be free if it's supported by advertising.

Mr. Arruda and his fellow complainers should wake up and smell the coffee. Even advertisers on network TV can't expect consumers to sit in rapt attention. The remote control put an end to that, transferring immense power to couch potatoes everywhere. Next came the VCR and its fast-forward button. It still takes half a minute or so to zip past a block of commercials on a tape, but even that minor inconvenience is now being eradicated; hard disk-based home recording systems like Tivo and Replay are here, and recordable DVD is just a year or two away. The non-linearity of the new formats allows consumers to instantly jump past minutes' worth of programming. Hmm. Guess which fare most people will want to skip.

Here's another thought for the Arruda camp: While TV spots don't make the rest of the programming go any slower, Webvertising greatly contributes to the congestion that hobbles the Internet experience for everyone sans cable modem or T1 line. That's because Web ads, as Brett Allan King writes in his roundup on page 40, have turned into "veritable motion pictures." Designed to draw consumers' attention, they now excel at slowing down pageloads. By the time all those ad-related bytes have trickled through my modem line, I'm often not very favorably inclined toward the advertised brand or product. Bottom line: If I wasn't in the business of professionally checking out ads, I would install Web Washer or At Guard without hesitation. That makes me a potential cheat and robber in Arruda's book -- so much so that he has taken countermeasures against me and my ilk. A special piece of code now denies freeloaders access to his Channelseek site. Which, I'll concede, is fair enough.

The arrival of more bandwidth will make all this a much less contentious issue, perhaps even a moot one. Until then, Web advertisers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Unobtrusive ads won't get the job done. Ads sporting bells and whistles annoy a good number of customers. Here's a solution: give Web surfers a choice. If they want to visit a site but balk at the advertising, charge them a small fee annually, or for a certain number of visits. If they walk away, the content provider is obviously not giving them something that's valuable to them. If they bite, however, any ad revenues lost will be made up by subscription or access fees. Seems to me that's a fair quid pro quo -- and Mr. Arruda still gets

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