YouTube cares less for your privacy than its revenues
Ad blockers are firewalls for our sanity – turning them off is madness
Opinion YouTube wants its pound of flesh. Disable your ad blocker or pay for Premium, warns a new message being shown to an unsuspecting test audience, with the barely hidden subtext of "you freeloading scum." Trouble is, its ad blocker detecting mechanism doesn't exactly comply with EU law, say privacy activists. Ask for user permission or taste regulatory boot. All good clean fun.
Privacy advocate challenges YouTube's ad blocking detection scripts under EU lawREAD MORE
Only it isn't. It's profoundly depressing. The battleground between ad tech and ad blockers has been around so long that in the internet's time span it's practically medieval. In 2010, Ars Technica started blocking ad blockers; in under a day, the ad blocker blocker was itself blocked by the ad blockers. The editor then wrote an impassioned plea saying that ad blockers were killing online journalism. As the editor ruefully notes, people weren't using blockers because they didn't care about the good sites, it was because so much else of the internet was filled with ad tech horrors.
Nothing much has changed. If your search hit ends up with an "ERROR: Ad blocker detected. Disable it to access this content" then it's browser back button and next hit down, all day, every day. It's like running an app that asks you to disable your firewall; that app is never run again. Please disable my ad blocker? Sure, if you stop pushing turds through my digital letterbox.
The reason YouTube has been dabbling with its own "Unblock Or Eff Off" strategy instead of bringing down the universal banhammer is that it knows how much it will upset the balance of the ecosystem. That it's had to pry deep enough into viewers' browsers to trigger privacy laws shows just how delicate that balance is. It's unstable because it's built on bad ideas.
In that ecosystem of advertisers, content consumers, ad networks, and content distributors, ad blockers aren't the disease, they're the symptom. Trying to neutralize a symptom alone leaves the disease thriving while the host just gets sicker. In this case, the disease isn't cynical freeloading by users, it's the basic dishonesty of online advertising. It promises things to advertisers that it cannot deliver, while blocking better ways of working. It promises revenue to content providers while keeping them teetering on the brink of unviability, while maximizing its own returns. Google has revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars, while publishers struggle to survive, and users have to wear a metaphorical hazmat suit to stay sane. None of this is healthy.
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Content providers have to be paid. We get that. Advertising is a valid way of doing that. We get that too. Advertisers need to reach audiences. Of course they do. But like this? YouTube needs its free, ad-supported model, or it would just force Premium on everyone, but forcing people to watch adverts will not force them to pony up for what's being advertised.
The pre-internet days saw advertising directly support publishers who knew how to attract the right audiences who would respond well to the right adverts. Buy a computer magazine and it would be full of adverts for computer stuff – much of which you'd actually want to look at. The publisher didn't demand you have to see ads for butter or cars or some dodgy crypto. That model has gone away, which is why we need ad blockers.
YouTube's business model is a microcosm of the bigger ad tech world, where it basically needs to spam millions to generate enough results for its advertisers. It cannot stomach ad blockers, but it can't neutralize them technically or legally. So it should treat them like the cognitive firewalls they are. If YouTube developed ways to control what and how adverts appeared back into the hands of its content providers and viewers, perhaps we'd tell our ad blockers to leave YouTube alone – punch that hole through the firewall for the service you trust. We'd get to keep blocking things that needed to be blocked, content makers could build their revenues by making better content, and advertisers would get a much better return on their ad spend.
Of course, this wouldn't provide the revenues to YouTube or the ad tech business obtainable by being spammy counterfeits of responsible companies with a lock on the market. That a harmful business model makes a shipload of money does not make it good, in fact quite the reverse.
So, to YouTube we say: you appear to be using a bad lock-in. Disable it, or pay the price. ®