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Attack the Block

Ad-blocking software raises legal, ethical and economic issues, but the law does not yet offer a solution for beleaguered publishers.

For many web users, ad-blocking (or ad-filtering) software makes the web an easier place to be.  News articles can be read without video adverts for luxury cars suddenly filling the screen and playing sound.  Youtube videos can be watched without disruptive commercials arbitrarily interspersed.

However, ad-blocking is considerably less rewarding for publishers and poses a real danger to their ability to generate any revenue from content.  Only a few websites have sufficient followers willing to pay a subscription to justify paywalls, so for much modern journalism commercials are the only income stream.

The compromise that ad-blockers offer, of filtering certain but not all ads, has proven just as controversial as the concept of blocking all adverts.  Ad-blockers have been accused of requiring payment to “whitelist” adverts, a practice that the UK culture secretary John Whittingdale has described as a “modern day protection racket”.

It is not surprising that publishers have asked government to intervene.  Mr Whittingdale has said that he will “consider what role there is for government”, whilst also stating “my natural political instinct is that self-regulation and co-operation is the key to resolving these challenges, and I know the digital sector prides itself on doing just that”.

There have been a series of legal challenges to Adblock Plus in Germany, and most recently head of operations Ben Williams claimed a fifth victory in the German courts in a claim brought by the owners of the German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.  According to Mr Williams’ account, amongst other things the Munich court held that there was no contract between the reader and the website provider under which the reader had agreed to view ads.

Ad-blocking threatens already-stretched business models and publishers sometimes appeal to their readers’ morality in asking to be allowed to be paid for the content they create, much in the way that music and film publishers did after the rise of peer-to-peer filesharing.  However, any steps taken by government also raise issues of interference in how users manage what they view on their own devices.

At present the law does not seem to offer an easy answer for frustrated publishers and the best option remains a technical solution: increasingly content providers use technical means to detect the use of ad-blocking plug-ins and automatically restrict access to their sites unless readers turn them off.

Disclaimer: This article is produced for and on behalf of White & Black Limited, which is a limited liability company registered in England and Wales with registered number 06436665. It is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The contents of this article should be viewed as opinion and general guidance, and should not be treated as legal advice.

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