Fresh from a bizarre food fight with rival Giorgio Maone of NoScript, Adblock Plus developer Wladimir Palant has offered an olive branch to publishers - and along with it, an opportunity for his users to show that they're not a bunch of parasitic freeloaders.
Essentially, Palant is offering up a dialogue where publishers first declare that their site does not run intrusive ads (we know, we'll get back to that*), and where users can - effectively - respond, cool, I understand you guys have to make a living and I've got no problem with you displaying non-intrusive ads to me. Widespread acceptance of such a system would, he feels 'restore the balance', both sides would be less annoyed, users would continue to get free content, publishers would continue to eat and the Internet would not be destroyed. And you might even foresee the possibility of ads getting a tad better, because there would be an incentive not be beat users around the head in order to get their attention.
Palant insists that "my goal with Adblock Plus isn’t to destroy the advertising industry... the Internet does need money to run and ads are still the most universal way to distribute that money. Adblock Plus is therefore intended to give control back to users. "Since the non-intrusive ads would be blocked less often it would encourage webmasters to use such ads, balance restored."
But Adblock Plus is his problem as well as the publishing industry's, because most of its users end up simply blocking all ads without exception, and don't get around to unblocking ads on particular sites, despite that ability being present in the product. So if he is destroying the publishing industry, it's an oops rather than an evil masterplan.
His solution is based on the premise that "most users don’t want to deny webmasters their income", and involves the addition of a tag to a page's source code, requesting that the user unblock ads for the particular site. According to Palant: "A webmaster should insert this tag into his pages if he thinks that the ads used on his site aren't intrusive" (yes, we still know, we'll still get back to that*). Adblock will look for this tag, check to see whether the user visits this site regularly, and then display a notification along these lines:
It seems that you are a frequent visitor to example.com. The owner of this website indicated that no annoying advertising is used here. Would you like to disable Adblock Plus on example.com to support it?
Then you can either view an example, decline, or opt to be asked later, after you've had some viewing time to decide. "I think that a negative decision wouldn’t be too common — provided that the webmaster has done his homework and the ads are really acceptable," says Palant optimistically.
He might well be right about that, although if the system worked according to spec, publishers' views on whether or not he was would be wildly divergent. The more aggressive ones would be sure he was entirely wrong, while the more angelic variety would find he was largely right.
And whether that would make the aggressive ones play nicer, or simply induce them to go nuclear and start blocking content for people using adblockers is currently a moot point. At the moment it's probably not an issue, because only about 5 per cent of Firefox users have Adblock Plus installed (which is around 13.5 million of Mozilla's claimed 270 million users), and there's currently a glut of advertising inventory.
So he's not really destroying the publishing industry - yet. But it would be interesting to see whether publishers would give the plan a hearing, and how many of his users really would be prepared to put some eyeballs into the collection plate.
* We agree, web site owners who're prepared to declare, effectively, loud and proud, my site runs annoying and intrusive ads, will be few and far between. But if they're lying when they deny this, you can always just not go there, or block them right back again if they've tricked you into believing them. In his post Palant first proposed either a visible option for reverting a positive decision, or a hidden preference in about:config. The latter was immediately voted down by his users, but it's interesting that he proposed it in the first place - wanting to bury it suggests he's maybe not so confident in his users after all. ®