Newspapers face a range of problems from loss of public trust to loss of print readership to bankruptcy and collapse to transitioning to digital journalism.  The newspaper industry has lumbered, sometimes grudgingly, into the digital age and is still experimenting with ways to remain financially viable: web subscriptions (i.e. pay walls) and advertising are among the primary sources of online revenue.

Online advertising, however, is not as viable as it might be for the newspaper industry due, they argue, to ad-blockers, and the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) has taken note.  The NAA, according to its website, is “a nonprofit organization representing nearly 2,000 newspapers and their multiplatform businesses in the United States and Canada. NAA members include daily newspapers, as well as nondailies, other print publications and online products.”

The Washington Post reports that the NAA has filed a federal suit against the ad blocking industry, “alleging that software companies which enable users to block ads are misleading the public.”

The complaint asks the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the government agency that oversees trade practices, to investigate ad blockers that offer “paid whitelisting,” – a service which charges advertisers to bypass ad-blocking software – along with services that substitute ad blockers’ own advertising for blocked ads or get around publishers’ subscription pages.

NAA’s press release has more detailed information:

The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) today filed a Complaint and Request for Investigation with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleging that certain ad blocking technologies and related services violate Section 5 of the FTC Act as unfair and deceptive trade practices. NAA requests that the FTC investigate ad blockers that offer “paid whitelisting,” substitute ad blockers’ own advertising for blocked ads, claim that subscription services prevent publisher harm, and facilitate the evasion of metered subscription systems.

“Newspapers recognize that ad blocking technology is responding to a consumer demand, and publishers are working diligently to improve the ad experience for consumers. However, some ad blocking firms have implemented ad blocking business models that deceive consumers. These practices undercut our members’ ability to provide a satisfying customer experience because the consumer is not receiving the whole truth,” said NAA President & CEO David Chavern.

Ben Williams, head of operations and communications for popular ad-blocking software AdBlock Plus, told the Washington Post that NAA had “misconstrued the services the company offers.”

The “only part of [NAA’s allegations] that resembles reality is the part about ad blocking being a statement of consumer dissatisfaction with an ad industry that has spied on them, deceived them and, most of all, annoyed them with intrusive ads for years.”

William’s said the company only white-listed ads that adhered to specific criteria, including size requirements and not disrupting the reading experience. He disputed the allegation that Ad Block Plus offered a pay-to-play system where users weren’t told that ads they had paid to block were being let in for a fee. Users, he said, could block all ads if they chose to do so.

WaPo also notes that, much as Professor Jacobson has done here at LI, “the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have experimented with messages that gently ask readers to turn off ad-blockers — or to consider subscribing.”

Online ads run the gamut from the relatively unobtrusive (like the ads here at LI) to the incredibly annoying (pop ups, autoplays) to the potentially dangerous (malware, redirects).

The Washington Post continues:

Online advertising is part of the trade-off that defines much of the Web’s economy. Much of what users do online is offered for “free” — e-mail, social networks, web search — only because companies can track the behavior of consumers and send them targeted ads.

Advocates of ad blockers say that the ads crowding websites these days are irritating, invasive and sometimes unsafe. Ads can slow downloading time. They sometimes take over entire screens, preventing users from seeing the content they actually want to read. Meanwhile, “malvertising” attacks have put malware into people’s computers and devices by hiding in legitimate advertising.

This showdown between the newspaper industry and the ad blocker industry has been a long time coming, but it seems unlikely that it can or will be resolved satisfactorily (to either side) in courts.  The primary culprit here may be neither the newspaper nor the ad blocker but may instead be the advertisers who create ads that readers simply cannot abide and/or that are unsafe.  Readers will always find a way to block or avoid these ads . . . even if that means refusing to visit the site with the offending ad/s a second time.


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