The advertising industry "has made it a principle to abuse the consumer," declared Roi Carthy of Shine during a panel debate at the IAB's recent Video Conference. Shine, the Israeli start-up supplying ad-blocking software at a network level, is used to making waves, most recently by taking out a full page ad in the Financial Times to have a swipe at the Interactive Advertising Bureau. That – unblockable – ad showed the famous image of Muhammad Ali standing over a floored Sonny Liston with the line: "The @iab knew we could block. Now they know we can punch, too".
Carthy went on to claim that mobile advertising was more likely to maliciously affect users than malware. "This genie is not going back in the bottle," he said of ad blocking.
Ben Williams of Adblock Plus was more nuanced, arguing that adblocking was evolving. Total blocking of ads was "a blunt tool to deal with a blunt ad industry approach", he said; but that blunt instrument was in the process of becoming a scalpel, "so consumers can see the internet they want while keeping ads as a monetisation tool". It's now about blocking "unacceptable" ads and creating whitelists.
Johnny Ryan of PageFair described the industry as "enjoying a period of useful self-flagellation" following 20 years in which it had "snooped more, pissed people off, slowed down their machines, stolen their data and hoovered up their bandwidth". Ad blocking, he said, signals an end to the assumption that "surveillance by default" is OK.
Some form of renaissance is now needed, he added, but the stakes are high, because if the industry can't fix the problem consumers will be driven from the open web to walled gardens owned by the likes of Facebook and Apple.
He suggested that there was a need to move beyond the idea of acceptable ads. "Remember the glory of your industry," he said, as he called for the advertising world to show leadership in coming up with a legitimate standard consumers and the trustees of the web can buy into – "a standard for advertising 2.0".
For Ooyala, Oscar Wall accepted the need to develop standards, regulations and guidelines but was firm on the point that ad blocking was not a consumer right and that it was not for ad blocking to dictate business models. "Consumers are not entitled to take content for free if the publisher doesn't want to offer it for free," he said. And he argued that the current system was self-correcting, even if that process wasn't happening quickly enough for some people.
When chairman Bob Wooton wondered if the ad industry had missed its chance to fix things, no-one agreed. Ryan and Williams saw greater consumer choice and control as the way forward and even Carthy said it wasn't too late for publishers to "gain the loyalty and respect of consumers". Part of the issue revolves around improving the quality of advertising, and Ryan likened the current situation to "the slap on the wrist" that TV advertising received when the advent of the remote control had forced it to up its game.
But it's more than that, as the ramifications of ad blocking spread far beyond viewers missing ads as they channel hop instead of going to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Ryan pointed to the experience of the Irish Times, which plays an important role in the life of that country. "It exposes injustice, corruption, all sorts of things, and it is being harmed by ad blocking," he said. "The tragedy of this is that it is the best publishers as well as everyone else who feel the pain."
Wall echoed that sentiment and returned to the bluntness of existing ad blockers. "There are absolutely sites that have a terrible user experience," he said, "with way too much focus on profiteering … it's enough to install it [ad blocking] once to get away from one bad experience and then you're harming premium publishers, you're harming broadcasters who spend a lot of time designing a great TV-like experience that's all about branding."
But he was confident that the industry had not missed its chance. "Content will always be king and we'll find a way round this," he said.
Asked whether the industry could reconcile consumers' wish not to be tracked with their willingness to complain when companies don't know them, Ryan compared this to the waiter who greets you by name at your local restaurant. That's good service, but it gets creepy when he turns up later in the cinema offering you popcorn. First-party tracking is fine, third-party not so much. "The industry has built itself on the creepy aspect," he said.
Wooton's conclusion was that a coalition of different interests was needed to come up with a definition of "acceptability". He also advised those present to experiment with ad blockers to see what they do. "You should have experience of how they work," he said. "Frankly, it's very scary."