The Morality of Ad Blocking

iOS 9 was released yesterday and includes support for web content blockers. The internet is roiled in a debate about the “morality” of using ad blockers and I find myself disagreeing with some very smart people who I respect. As such I feel the need to think carefully about  my position and lay it out clearly.

Spoiler alert: there is nothing even remotely immoral about using an ad blocker.

In determining if something is moral or not, there are two pieces we ought to consider: the intention and the object; more simply, the why and the what. If either of these is bad, then action as a whole is immoral.

Intention

If you do good for the wrong reasons, it’s still wrong. If a rich person gives millions of dollars to a politician's charity, but does so to buy influence and power, then the act is wrong though the charitable cause is noble.

If users of content blockers employ them with the intention of harming content creators, then the act is wrong. I can’t speak for everyone, but I use ad blocking to make pages more readable, to make them load faster, to reduce data usage, and protect my privacy. I believe this is the case for most people, if not everyone.

Object

An action can be immoral despite good intentions. If a doctor hopes to cure cancer, but pursues this goal by applying experimental treatments to unknowing patients, her actions are wrong despite being directed toward an ultimate good. Noble ends don’t justify evil means.

Is the usage of a content blocker inherently wrong despite morally neutral intentions? The question boils down to this: do content creators have a right to dictate the way others partake in that which they create.

Legal Rights

Many people incorrectly conflate the law and morality. Actions that are legal can be immoral, and the law itself can be unjust. In the latter case, the moral act is in fact civil disobedience, as it was for Martin Luther King Junior. On the other hand, breaking a law that does not rise to the level of injustice is immoral.

Copyright laws do grant certain rights to content creators, and it is immoral to break those laws even if you disagree with them (as some do); copyright laws are not unjust. If you copy someone’s content and resell it, claim it as your own, or republish it and try to profit from it in some way, this is certainly immoral because it breaks the law.

Copyright, however, does not grant the holder the right to dictate how others partake in their content. It is legal to read the last page of a book first or to skip some boring dialog in a movie, even if the creator of the work would prefer otherwise.

Users of ad blockers are obtaining the content legally and choosing to alter its presentation on their own devices before taking it in. This is perfectly legal and in no way breaking Copyright law.

Intrinsic Rights

Using an ad blocker is not illegal and can’t be deemed immoral on these grounds, but legal acts are not always moral. The question becomes one of essential, or intrinsic morality. Do creators have a moral right to dictate how others partake in their creations, even if the law doesn’t, or can’t, enforce it?

If the writer of a longform piece decrees it ought be read in one sitting, have I done something immoral by reading it in bits? If a musician carefully crafts an album to be listened to as a whole, have I done something wrong by only listening to my favorite song? Of course not.

Creators have no intrinsic right to dictate how their content is taken in. I have no moral obligation to obey their wishes nor do I have any obligation to justify my ignoring them. One could say “If you don’t want to listen to the whole album, then don’t listen to even one song.” Why would it be assumed the receiver of content must make this choice? To what principle can we appeal to grant such moral authority to content creators?

In reality the onus is flipped: if a creator is not willing to have her creation received by others as they choose, then she ought not release it publicly. Those who obtain content through licit means are free to take it in as they please.

Business

I have talked only generally about creators’ rights regarding their content, not about ad filtering or business models. Does it matter specifically that using ad blockers breaks the means by which content creators intended to monetize?

Pretend I place a disclaimer at the top of this blog that says before reading it you must send me $10. Since it is my intention to monetize this way, are you morally obligated to send me $10 or otherwise close the page before reading the content? Are you stealing from me if you read the piece but don’t send the cash? Obviously not.

If an artist displays a painting in a public space, and then places an ad next to it, is it immoral to enjoy the piece but ignore the ad? If I stand gazing at the work but hold my hand up to block the ad, have I done something wrong? Am I stealing form the artist? No. The artist has simply chosen a dumb business model.

In 2015, display ads on the web are fast becoming a dumb business model.

The Future

Technology and business moves fast and this can be scary. As one business model is subverted, it can be tempting to fall into the trap of believing nothing else will emerge, and therefore treat the change as morally perilous. Open source is communist, ride sharing is evil, robots are taking all our jobs, etc, etc... This same moral outrage is being directed at users of a content blockers and as usual it is actually a misplaced fear of change.

Display ads on websites are not the best business model we can come up with for digital content. Soon there will 5 billion people in the world connected to the internet via smartphones. I have a hard time believing they will have nothing good to read or watch because content blockers killed display ads.