Is Adblock Plus anti-competitive?

02 June 2015



By Stephen A Chadwick 

Technology Editor 
 

For the second time in as many months, AdBlock Plus has emerged victorious from a German courtroom. Broadcasters RTL and ProSiebenSat 1 filed a suit against Cologne-based Eyeo (owners of AdBlock) alleging that the product was anti-competitive, damaging revenue and limiting their ability to provide free content. The Munich judge disagreed and ruled in favour of Eyeo, much to the relief of people like me. Die Zeit and Handelsblatt had previously claimed that their online news sites had the right to display ads to anyone visiting their domains, a claim rejected by a Hamburg court back in April. 

 

I can cope with a bit of advertising here and there; the odd pop-up, the occasional pre-roll spot before a video which you can skip after the longest five seconds of your life, an Amazon advert for a product I bought elsewhere, months before, in the wings of an article I'm reading. I'm not an unreasonable man, I appreciate that advertising needs to exist in some form or another. If you spend a lot of time on the web you accept that a bit of advertising comes with the territory. 

 

In the past few years however, it has become such a nuisance, so invasive, with the ads often full-screen and so hard to dispose of, the "close" buttons almost imperceptible to the naked eye, that I installed the AdBlock plug-in to Chrome just to be shot of them. I won't lie, I won't tell you it transformed my life but it did improve my browsing experience immeasurably. And now, as is my wont, I'm going to digress...

 

Up until a few years ago, the History Channel was probably the most watched TV station in my house. I know it occasionally went over the top with repetitive CGI sequences, the over-enthusiastic American voice-over artistes could become tiresome after a long day, but in general it pumped out some pretty decent, educational programs that the whole family could watch - no swearing, very few nipples at meal times, just wholesome television. The availability of that channel alone went some way to justifying our satellite TV bill. 

 

Then, for some inexplicable reason, back in about 2010 I'd say, the channel's top executives, along with the accountants and the head of programming evidently enjoyed a crack-fuelled meeting where it was unanimously decided that instead of broadcasting quality, thought-provoking and inspiring documentaries they'd try a new tactic. "Let's forget funding expensive expeditions to polar regions, harsh deserts, deep caves - let's follow two dullards with a transit van around the backwaters of the U.S. whilst they poke about in people's barns", suggested one. "Yeah! And if one of them could have repetitive back problems and the other had a penchant for old oil cans we'd really be onto something." chimed in another. And that, campers, was how "American Pickers" was born.

 

The History Channel, realising they were onto something massive with this new "reality" approach, immediately scrapped any projects that might require a modicum of research. Anything approximating intelligent programming was shelved and replaced with low-budget gems such as "Pawn Stars", "Cajun Pawn Stars", "Pawnography" and the upcoming show on antique toys, Victorian dolls and collectible comics - "Child Pawn". Alright, you know I made the last one up, but how much more mileage can these people get out of a homophone? 

 

I've found myself increasingly shunning traditional terrestrial and satellite offerings and gravitated towards online, on-demand services like YouTube. There are some absolute gems on there; the BBC's benchmark 1960's series on The Great War - all 26 episodes available. Or the fascinating American Experience Films documentary on the building of the Panama Canal. There are hundreds of channels dedicated to sharing documentaries, it's almost heaven.

 

I say "almost heaven", because it's not perfect. In addition to the pre-roll advertisements that you can skip after 5 seconds, and the post-roll ads that you can simply close out of once your chosen video is finished, YouTube now offers the "Mid-roll" option to those uploading content. It's quite clear that no thought has gone into this at all. Where the commercial is placed in the video appears to be completely arbitrary. Churchill can be cut off mid sentence during his "We'll fight them on the beaches" speech and replaced with a 30 second slot for a German car manufacturer. It utterly destroys the immersive experience and it ruins the moment. It's the equivalent of someone making a call on their mobile to order pizza during a deceased, loved one's eulogy. 

 

"But how does this affect you, Stephen? You use Adblock don't you?" I hear you all cry. Well yes, yes I do, as a browser plug-in on desktop and laptop. However when using the YouTube Apps for the Playstation or Xbox on my home TVs, I'm exposed to intrusive commercials just like anyone else. And because the console wireless controllers have automatically switched off to save battery life, by the time I've fired them up and flapped about, I'm already 28 seconds into a 30 second mid-roll slot. It's infuriating. 

 

I have no idea how long AdBlock can fend off these legal challenges. I sincerely hope forever. But surely it's only a matter of time before the likes of Comcast, 21st Century Fox and Walt Disney roll out the legal big guns? AdBlock has consistently said it wants to work alongside advertisers to offer less invasive adverts. Indeed it even has a whitelist, in which advertisers that adhere to some basic rules (no sound, no animation, slots no longer than 5 seconds) aren't blocked by the plug-in. 

 

We need AdBlock, the internet is rapidly turning into a digital version of the worst kind of local paper. You know the ones I mean - 3 pages of news and 36 pages of utter dross; classified ads, special offers and coupons. AdBlock Plus is our front line against this threat. Last week's court case was a superb victory for Eyeo, but let's be very clear about this, AdBlock have only won a battle, not the war.