Bioethics Blogs

Why It’s OK to Block Ads

Over the past couple of months, the practice of ad blocking has received heightened ethical scrutiny. (1,2,3,4)

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “ad blocking” refers to software—usually web browser plug-ins, but increasingly mobile apps—that stop most ads from appearing when you use websites or apps that would otherwise show them.

Arguments against ad blocking tend to focus on the potential economic harms. Because advertising is the dominant business model on the internet, if everyone used ad-blocking software then wouldn’t it all collapse? If you don’t see (or, in some cases, click on) ads, aren’t you getting the services you currently think of as “free”—actually for free? By using ad-blocking, aren’t you violating an agreement you have with online service providers to let them show you ads in exchange for their services? Isn’t ad blocking, as the industry magazine AdAge has called it, “robbery, plain and simple”?

In response, defenders of ad blocking tend to counter with arguments that ads are often “annoying,” and that blocking them is a way to force advertising to get better. Besides, they say, users who block ads wouldn’t have bought the advertisers’ products anyway. Many users also object to having data about their browsing and other behavioral habits tracked by advertising companies. Some also choose to block ads in hopes of speeding up page load times or reducing their overall data usage.

What I find remarkable is the way both sides of this debate seem to simply assume the large-scale capture and exploitation of human attention to be ethical and/or inevitable in the first place.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.