By Klint Finley for WIRED.
The Coalition for Better Ads, a consortium of ad, publishing, and tech companies, wants to save the advertising industry — by killing it. Or at least parts of it. Companies in the coalition will discuss, among other idea, pre-installation of a selective ad-blocker on web browsers as a means to effectively purge the internet of the most intrusive types of ads, such as those that automatically play sound, take-up too much of your screen, or force you to wait a certain amount of time before you can dismiss them.
The idea was first reported Thursday by The Wall Street Journal, which suggested that ad-blockers would be built into Google’s Chrome web browser and turned on by default.
“We do not comment on rumor or speculation,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement. “We’ve been working closely with the Coalition for Better Ads and industry trades to explore a multitude of ways Google and other members of the Coalition could support the Better Ads Standards.”
Stuart Ingis, counsel for the Coalition for Better Ads, says the group will begin discussing specific ideas in coming weeks, though it would be six months to a year before anything is implemented. “To my knowledge Google has not made any decision,” Ingis says. “But certainly a natural way to solve this problem would be in the browsers, whether it’s Google or Microsoft or Apple or any of them.” Ingis doesn’t like to call this ad-blocking, because ad-blocking is generally associated with indiscriminate blocking of all ads on all sites.
Whatever solution the group arrives at, Ingis says, Google won’t be making decisions for the industry unilaterally. The ad formats that are blocked will be decided by the coalition’s members based on its research on what types of ads consumers find most intrusive. The technology, if the coalition moves forward with it, will likely be eventually supported by other browsers as well. (WIRED publisher Conde Nast is a member of Digital Content Next, a trade group that is part of the Coalition for Better Ads.)
It might sound strange for advertising companies to embrace ad-blocking in any capacity, but there is a clear upside to instating this practice. About 26 percent of internet users have ad-blockers on their computers, according to a survey conducted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, and and about 10 percent use ad-blockers on their phones. The main reason people use ad-blockers, according to survey, is that ads make sites slower and harder to navigate. If the advertising industry can keep people from installing more strict ad-blocking tools by blocking the worst offending advertisements — or get some of those people who already use ad-blockers to turn them off — then perhaps it can save more advertising revenue than it stands to lose by running noisy ads that take over your screen.
Last month, the Coalition for Better Ads published research to determine which specific ad-formats and behaviors most bother people. Based on this research, it created the “Better Ads Standards,” which will form the basis of any efforts the group takes to kill-off bad ads and promote good ones.
What the group hopes to do is discourage the use of annoying and intrusive advertising practices across the web in an attempt to win back consumer trust. Advertisers and ad-purchasers will play an important role in this by shifting their spending to publishers and ad-networks that only run ads that comply with the coalition’s guidelines says John Montgomery, the executive vice president of brand safety at GroupM, a Coalition member and the largest ad-purchasing agency in the world. Browser-makers like Google and Microsoft, however, could also play a role by not just blocking annoying ads, but blocking all ads on sites that include ads that violate the coalition’s guidelines.
That would be even more controversial than just selectively blocking ads, but it would also likely be the most effective way to pressure even the sketchiest of websites to comply. Google Chrome alone was used by about 53 percent of all web users last month according to web analytics company StatCounter. Few publishers are likely to risk losing more than half their ad-views just to run a few obnoxious ads. Ingis says if the group does go down this route, it will make sure decisions about which sites are blocked and which aren’t made by a single company, and that there will be an appeals process for publishers that feel they’ve been treated unfairly.
But the Coalition for Better Advertising is still only addressing one part of the problem with digital advertising. The thing is, web ads aren’t just annoying. They can also be dangerous.
Last year several mainstream sites, ranging from the New York Times to nfl.com, accidentally served ads containing code that tried to install malware on users’ computers. It wasn’t an isolated incident. Security researchers have been complaining about the scourge of “malvertising” for years. Meanwhile, adtech companies have a tendency to slurp up as much data about you as possible, likely violating your privacy in the process.
Most people use blockers for the sake of convenience, but many others use them to protect their privacy and reduce their risk of attracting malware. Ingis says that the Coalition for Better Ads isn’t looking at privacy–at least not yet — but other industry groups like the IAB are working on data protection and security standards for the industry. Until the industry cleans up its privacy act, ad-blockers will still be relevant.
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