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How Ethical Are Ad Blockers?

For many netizens, a free Internet would be the apogee of its early techno-utopian vision. Yet the "free internet" rallying cry is one of the latest, greatest manifestations of consumerism.

Internet artist Darius Kazemi recently published an extension for the Chrome web browser, which he dubbed the Ethical Ad Blocker. The Ethical Ad Blocker wryly addresses one of the great scourges of the Internet these days, the near universal expectation for free content.

First, I have to confess that I hate the word “content”. When online marketers talk about “content” marketing, I want to bang my head against the desk. The term is so aggravatingly abstract, so generic, so dehumanized. A container contains the content. What’s the container? A web browser, a publishing platform, perhaps a brand. I say that last word with special sarcasm. Back in the day, herds of cows got branded. Now people speak unironically of themselves as brands. By implication, the ambition of people-as-brands is to sear their prefab identities onto our pliant gray matter.

That we’re accustomed to thinking of what’s delivered up to us on the intertubes as “content” frames the transaction as one in which the middle-man has already triumphed. The medium indeed has long been the message, to the extent that the message has become mere “content”. A bland paste squeezed from virtual tubes directly into our skulls.

Sure, many insist on the necessity of providing great content, that somehow, amidst the glut of free content on the Internet, quality still matters. Hence the value of curation. But marketers have long ago figured out how to synergize quality with quantity. Given the surplus even of primo content, there’s scarce value (diminishing quickly as it’s automated away by algorithms) to be wrung from sorting the silver from the dross. Nowadays, we bodacious surfers of the ‘net can have our cake and eat it, too.

Enter sites like HuffPo, Medium, Mashable, and similar sites. Like traditional print publications, they (lightly) curate our content so that we don’t have to. But many content providers struggle to make ends meet. Bill Simmons’ pet project with ESPN, Grantland, which enjoyed a monthly audience in the millions, recently shut down. Twitter’s stock stagnates as its American user base withers. The company has been reduced to recycling CEOs and swapping stars for hearts.

Respected brands scramble to find ways to monetize their content. Slate has Slate +, which it unrelentingly importunes its free-riders to embrace. As profits trickle, paywalls rise. As paywalls rise, audiences wander off. Other providers opt to spread the net as wide as possible. Salon, at 25 million or so page views a month, has the echo chamber of liberal umbrage. HuffPo and Gawker have their gossipy clickbait, made possible by an army of free or freelance content providers.

Paul Mason recently proclaimed that the Internet wants to be free. For many netizens, a free Internet would be the apogee of its early techno-utopian vision. Yet the “free internet” rallying cry is one of the latest, greatest manifestations of consumerism.

As we’ve all learned in our new media primers, consumerism grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, and reached puberty in the ’70s. In the early ’80s, it got a shot of growth hormone when free market zealots in the Reagan administration tweaked the federal government’s interpretation of antitrust laws to lionize the needs and desires of the consumer above all else. Amazon epitomizes this ethos. While it trumpets its world-class customer service, it bulldozes the industries it invades. Amazon’s rapaciousness comes pre-justified. Hey, its marketers drone on, we’re just passionately committed to serving our customers.

The economic result has been that the medium is not only the message, but the only path to financial viability. Inspired by Apple’s otherworldly profit margins, even Microsoft is now getting in on the hardware racket. Consumers are not quite yet so jaded to assume that objects they can hold in their hands should also be free. Nevertheless, the messengers in this algorithm are mere digitized instruments, to be casualized, outsourced, and automated at their corporate benefactors’ discretion.

As consumers, we collude with our own disenfranchisement. We adore the cheaply manufactured goods that pile up in our homes, as well as the cornucopia of free, quality content at our fingertips through Youtube, Spotify, Mashable, and the Facebook.

My wife tutors high school kids in Portland, Oregon to prepare for standardized college admission exams. She recently shared with me the gist of a conversation she has had with her students on more than one occasion. Millennials, like Gen Xers and Baby Boomers before them, have no qualms with insisting on free content wherever they can get their mitts on it. However, now that they’re making the transition from being exclusively consumers to also being producers — in our snowflake culture, we all want to be artists — they’re suddenly realizing that, crap, building an audience is hard, and that double-crap, most audiences expect stuff to be free.

In his bestselling book Freakonomics, Chicago School economist Steven Levitt famously described what he calls a “tournament” profession. These are vocations that demand an outsize share of talent, persistence, privilege, and luck to succeed. Neophytes must be willing to sacrifice both time and income in the hopes of making the Big Time, where the rewards are commensurate, in rare cases, with the sacrifices made. Most fail.

Levitt, citing the work of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, used the crack dealer as his archetype of a “tournament” profession. Entry-level crack dealers endure the worst working conditions imaginable—the near constant threat of gun violence intermingled with intense boredom—exacerbated by wages well below minimum wage, on the off chance that they’ll rise in the ranks to become a captain or boss, at which time, as we’ve all seen glorified in gangster rap videos, the rewards of survival are spectacular. Pro athletes, recording artists, and professors are also examples, to varying degrees, of high-sacrifice, low-success-rate “tournament” professions.

Since the ’70s what were once considered stable, if dull, middle-class professions have become tournament professions. The American economy has become, in large part, a tournament economy. Surely, the fetishization of the consumer has contributed to this turn toward the transformation of healthy competition into a gladiatorial arena. As producers claw over each other to sacrifice their creativity in the hopes of a shot at blowing up, consumers gobble up voraciously the steaming piles of juicy, free—or deeply-discounted—content.

The corollary to the tournament economy is that it has also become a mercantilist or beggar-thy-neighbor economy. We producers want to be special, to be artists; meanwhile, schizophrenically, we consumers want something for nothing.

One consequence of this beggar-thy-neighbor economy is that advertising, that once noble enterprise to “educate” the masses about useful, new products, has metastasized into the beast with which we’re now all ubiquitously confronted. Prime evidence: the estimated five billion dollars to be spent in this upcoming year’s American presidential election campaign, most of it on advertising.

Every couple months or so, the editors here at PopMatters send out a reminder to all the writers. They urge us, at least while we’re browsing the site, to disable the ad blockers many, if not most of us, have plugged into our browsers. Advertising, they politely remind us, is the publication’s main source of revenue. (They also emphasize that they work to maintain the quality of the advertising allowed on the site.)

A fantastic irony of the ad blocker trend is that even the ad blockers themselves struggle to make money. Adblock Plus is experimenting with charging advertisers not to be blocked. It’s like The Sopranos‘ Paulie Walnuts trying to shake down Starbucks.

So even this Faustian bargain—an awkward ménage between content provider, advertiser, and consumer—is under threat. Once upon a time, we consumers were offered free content in exchange for giving reputable vendors the chance to tell us about the exciting new products they knew we’d just love. As ads further saturate our “mindspace” (remember that hilarious MBA jargon term from the ’80s?), enabled by the ad blockers’ race-to-the-bottom zeal, we can now gleefully drain the lifeblood out of the content providers we so ambivalently patronize.

Enter Kazemi’s Ethical Ad Blocker. It’s a Chrome extension that works like a conventional ad blocker—but with a twist. When you visit a site, if the site is supported by advertising, in lieu of the site’s content, you’re presented with the following page:

Sorry. This page is ad supported. It would be unethical to view this site. Try a website like the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Archive, or instead. They give their stuff away for free.

With the Ethical Ad Blocker enabled on your browser, as you surf, it becomes glaringly apparent just how many of your favorite sites rely on advertising to finance the editorial content (and supporting costs) we all enjoy so much. The Ethical Ad Blocker is a sarcastic reminder to us parasitic consumers of Internet content that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Until corporate-financed hackers figure out how to automate writing beyond formulaic summaries of sporting events and news, we must continue to reckon with the fact that content isn’t fruit that magically drops from an infinitely fecund tree. People labor to produce content. It’s work. Work in the service of others’ needs and wants is deserving of reasonable compensation. Instead, in our beggar-thy-neighbor Internet economy, the consumer head of the snake gnaws away at the producer tail. Which is to suggest that the entire Internet economy, yet again, is one or two margin calls away from being declared an irredeemable Ponzi scheme.

Sure, services like Kickstarter and Patreon have made headway in educating consumers about the basic fact that good stuff, even stuff of the ethereal intellectual-property kind, doesn’t come for free. For every Patreon, there’s a horde of HuffPos, Spotifys, and Amazons, all too eager to eviscerate the artist on the altar of consumerism.

So what is to be done? It all starts and ends with the attitude of consumers. Deeply ingrained habits have to change. That’s no easy feat. Still, inasmuch as consumers are also producers, we all have a vital incentive to get our act together.

Tidal, the music-streaming subscription service started by Jay Z, is a promising hint at what’s possible when artists take ownership of a medium. It has gotten its share of bad press in recent months, but Tidal limps along quite nicely with over a million subscribers. Given all the advantages Tidal has had during its launch, its struggles are a testament to the rigidity of consumer behavior.

Now, I fully admit that, as any entrepreneur can attest, ideas are cheap. The value is in the execution. What I’m about to propose is an idea that would be easy to execute technically, yet it would have a vast impact on the plight of writers as they scrounge for a living wage in the Internet age. The challenge, of course, would be to coax, cajole, or shame readers into playing along. So, with that caveat, I invite any and all of you to steal this startup idea.

It’s basically Tidal for writing. The venture would be a marketplace or exchange for written work. Writers, publishers, and readers would become members of the exchange. Publication sites would exchange-enable the writing on their sites. Readers would set up accounts on the exchange and deposit funds into their accounts. When a reader reads a piece of writing on a member publication site, the exchange would debit the writer’s account a small toll, say, a nickel. In a nutshell, the marketplace would offer micropayments for quality writing.

This is how the revenue would get divvied up: two cents would go to the writer; two cents would go to the publisher. The exchange itself would keep one cent for administrative overhead. Consider that a site like Slate gets upwards of 30 million pageviews a month. Currently, both editors and writers struggle to make a living wage. In current economic conditions, a Slate writer makes a couple hundred dollars from an article consumed by hundreds of thousands of readers.

Under the exchange compensation scale, for a Slate article that’s read by 1,000 readers, the writer would make $20. For 10,000 reads, $200. For 100,000, $2,000. At 100,000 reads and up, we’re in the realm of an actual living wage.

Here’s another feature of the exchange: it would be not-for-profit, much like the National Football League. Its mission would be to support writers. The biggest part of that mission would be to educate readers to appreciate good writing and to be willing to pair a fair price for it. Five cents isn’t really too much to ask for five- to ten-minutes of pleasure and edification. As a democratically run non-profit organization, the exchange would be empowered to bargain with employers on behalf of writers as a collective unit. The exchange would embody the notion that writers and readers need to take full responsibility for their relationship.

The beauty of the writing exchange would be that it offers something for both ends of the political spectrum. For the “lazy fair” capitalists, there’s the tempering of market competition. Writers can only earn more if they attract larger audiences. For the “nanny state” socialists, there’s the solidarity of collective bargaining.

What would give the exchange teeth? Writers who join would simply stop writing for publications that don’t participate. Publications that participate can anticipate quality work from their monetarily-motivated writers. If enough high-profile writers—say, the likes of Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, and J.K. Rowling—were to make a commitment to write exclusively for the exchange on the Internet, it would set a powerful precedent. Writers would amass a great deal of bargaining power over the corporations that horde audience access.

Again, I want to stress that the obstacles to the realization of such an exchange are not technical; they’re cultural. What’s lacking is the will of writers and readers alike to change our habits. Changing those habits may take a while. In the meantime, at the very least, we can all turn off our damn ad blockers.