AdBlock arms race?

I have been happily using AdBlock for years, with few if any inconveniences resulting. Lately, however, I have noticed websites partially sabotaging themselves for AdBlock users. I suppose this makes sense – they must hate the loss of advertising revenue.

It wouldn’t surprise me if even the sites that aren’t taking action in response to AdBlock now are tracking which of their visitors have used the software in the past.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

39 thoughts on “AdBlock arms race?”

  1. I don’t know if it’s intentional sabotage or not, but the playlist bar at the bottom of the screen in YouTube doesn’t work when I have AdBlock running in Firefox.

    Twitter doesn’t work at all.

  2. Do you also run noscript? That could be the culprit. I can use twitter fine with adblock but my usage is limited to reading a feed, not responding or running my own account.

    Youtube also plays fine but this might be a function of your adblock filter subscription (or noscript again though Youtube will give you a java-less alternative page) as more people seem to dislike the playlist bar and actively block it. See:

    Reverse those steps to get it back if you want (I personally don’t like it).

    I remember a few years back (2005, wow, ok 6 years ago) when Adblock was still in beta and firefox was called Raptor there was a site that started blocking adblock… A bit of that discussion here:

    I think the most up-to date filter subscriptions now use element hiding and white listing for sites that actively block adblock and by doing so that should be impossible to detect as the ad still downloads, but is just hidden by the browser, vs. being blocked from even downloading.

    Though perhaps a small amount, with the rediculously low UBB limit now in force, I don’t want to wast even 500MB in downloading Ads…

  3. I tried turning off (but not uninstalling) NoScript, and there are still issues with YouTube and Twitter.

    Does anyone else think it’s plausible that sites could be tracking AdBlock use?

  4. Adblock does not get “announced” to a web server like the actual browser headers however it is detectable based on behaviour but it requires some java scripting to do so, which may or may not track false positives as well. However, depending on your ruleset you can evade said detection as well, though it is a bit of a cat and mouse game. Given that, I am not sure how many sites bother tracking but I am sure some do.

    Another option is greasemonkey which can do some things with inline java that adblock does not touch (which is the primary means of adblock detection, that and DOM model manipulation).

    I find a good combination of addons for firefox is adblock, noscript, greasemonkey and firebug which is useful in its own right for web development, but also handy to look at code on a website and craft custom filters for adblock and/or greasemonkey.

    I, however can’t replicate your issues with YouTube or Twitter.

    Other than the playlist issue, do you have any other issues with YouTube? Are you “anonymous” when viewing or logged into a youtube account (it might make a difference).

    As for Twitter what is the issue exactly? I got an error with noscript enabled, but allowed in noscript and I can read feeds, etc and see no ads with adblock enabled.

    What version of adblock you running? The original adblock was abandoned long ago, but adblock plus is going strong. Also what filter subscription (if any) are you using?

  5. I am running AdBlock Plus 1.3.3 with the EasyList (USA) filter subscription.

    Twitter is now working again. When I wrote this post, all that would load on the Twitter site was the bar at the top. That left me using Safari for one Twitter account and Chrome for another.

    In YouTube, the only issue seems to be the absence of the playlist bar, as you described above.

  6. Ad-blocking box maker seeks funding

    AdTrap is a planned $150 firewall box for consumers. Plugged in between your internet connection and router, it strips the web of advertising without requiring a moment’s configuration. Unlike browser-based plugins, it covers the whole pipe rather than a single app: every device in the house managed from a single setup screen.

  7. THEY pop up without warning, distract attention and clog computers. Users have many reasons to shun online ads—and find it easy to do so. Though global online-advertising revenues rose by 22% in 2011, websites that depend on selling their viewers’ eyeballs are worried. Around 9% of all online page views come from browsers armed with ad-blocking software, such as Adblock Plus, downloaded nearly 180m times since 2007, and 3.5m times in October alone.

    Few sites have tried to fight back. In 2010 Ars Technica, a technology-news outlet, found that 40% of its users were blocking its ads. So it blocked their access for a day, but signed up only 200 users (out of 5m a month) for its ad-free version. Media firms are now opting for paywalls. Press+, a paywall provider set up in 2010, now has over 300 clients.

  8. “The Pagefair breach is neatly illustrative of the user-case for blocking: even if you don’t care about advertising per se, you might still want to shield your computer from malvertising attacks and tracking.”

  9. The Ad Blocking Wars

    So it’s little wonder that the use of ad-blocking software grew 41 percent last year, with 198 million active users worldwide, according to a study conducted by Adobe and PageFair. This represents an existential threat to the $50 billion online advertising industry and has ignited a bitter feud between advertisers and developers of ad-blocking apps. On the sidelines, privacy advocates are pumping their fists for consumer choice while web publishers wring their hands over lost revenue.

    The fight became public last month when Randall Rothenberg, the president and chief executive of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, lobbed several verbal grenades at developers of ad blockers during his keynote address to his group’s annual leadership meeting. He called them “an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes.” His venom was directed particularly at for-profit ad blockers who, for a fee, will unblock advertisers who meet certain standards of nonintrusiveness. Rothenberg called the practice “extortion.”

    Ad blockers fired right back. “We are as motivated to protect consumers as advertisers are to abuse them,” said Roi Carthy, the chief marketing officer for Shine, an Israeli company that recently began offering ad-blocking software to wireless carriers, which are increasingly weary of the burden data-intensive ads place on their networks. Heretofore, ad blockers were mainly sold or given away to individuals. “This is a holy war for us,” Mr. Carthy said.

    Shine is partly financed by the Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing who also has stakes in Facebook, Spotify and the Bitcoin payment company BitPay. Shine’s first major client is the Caribbean mobile service Digicel, and Mr. Carthy claims his team is negotiating with 60 other carriers.

  10. Some ad-blockers are tracking you, shaking down publishers, and showing you ads

    Adblock Plus comes off the worst of the lot. The company charges publishers fees to allow their ads through its filters, based on criteria about size and placement. Ghostery blocks trackers, but by default gathers “anonymized” data about your browsing habits (it’s very hard to conclusively describe any deep data set as anonymized).

    Both tools allow you to customize them to change these behaviors, but most people never change their defaults, and in the case of Adblock Plus, the user interface is extremely difficult to navigate.

    The nonprofit world does a lot better: EFF’s Privacy Badger doesn’t track you and doesn’t take money to make exceptions. It also has a much narrower purpose: blocking ads that use “non-consensual tracking” that allow for “retargeted” ads that follow you from one site to another. It has a lot fewer options than, say, Adblock Plus — it’s not useful if you want to automatically block scripts that drive those “subscribe to our email list” popups, or opt out of cookies from news sites that try to limit you to 10 articles per month. On the other hand, fewer options mean fewer ways to accidentally turn on something that allows tracking.

  11. Publishers call Brave’s privacy-centric browser “illegal”; Brave responds

    Brave is a new experimental browser from Brendan Eich, inventor of Javascript and co-founder of Mozilla. It comes with a built-in ad-blocker that only blocks third party ads, and replaces them with non-tracking ads from its own inventory, whose revenue is then shared with publishers and users, on better terms than most ad networks give.

    17 members of the Newspaper Publishers of America published a damning letter this morning, called Brave “blatantly illegal” and a “plan to steal content.”

  12. Facebook is at war with users who block ads, and battle proceeds apace. Just two days after boasting that it could serve ads that were undetectable by adblockers, Facebook got a rude awakening in the form of updates to AdBlock that detected them just fine. But it isn’t giving up, and has already adjusted its code to once again circumvent the blocks.

    AdBlock is at a disadvantage due to Facebook’s engineering resources and ability to update its site on-the-fly. That said, Facebook loses more money from each lost ad than AdBlock pays to remove it, which creates an asymmetrical fight. AdBlock is, of course, not a noble venture—it dominates the ad blocking market and whitelists ads from publishers that pay it protection money.

  13. It’s like native advertising—ads designed to look like content—but for machine vision instead of humans.

    If Facebook thought that cracking this nut was “game over” for ad blocking, though, it was in for a surprise. It looks like AdBlock was able to score a shock (if brief) reversal because it did something Facebook didn’t expect: it didn’t give a shit about blocking user content along with ads.

  14. Ad-blockers begat ad-blocker-blockers, which begat ad-blocker-blocker-blockers, with no end in sight.

    But a quartet of distinguished security researchers from Princeton and Stanford say that the blockers will win in the end — publishers will not be able to make their ads unblockable, nor will they be able to detect whether their ads were blocked.

    The researchers start from the assumption that advertisers and publishers will have to put up with some constraints on their tactics, lest they be accused of deceptive advertising practices. They also leave an open question of whether publishers will be able to successfully sue ad-blocking companies — which would mean all bets are off:

    “In this paper we have presented an approach to ad blocking which is radically different from current techniques. Current ad blocking is based on the laborious process of creating filter rules and is easily disrupted by obfuscation implemented by publishers. In contrast we take a principled approach to the problem and present solutions that are easier to implement and harder to evade. Our work refutes the belief that the battle between publishers and users is leading to a permanent arms race between the two parties, and presents a much more nuanced picture.

  15. Advances in Ad Blocking

    Ad blockers represent the largest consumer boycott in human history. They’re also an arms race between the blockers and the blocker blockers. This article discusses a new ad-blocking technology that represents another advance in this arms race. I don’t think it will “put an end to the ad-blocking arms race,” as the title proclaims, but it will definitely give the blockers the upper hand.

  16. Apple is cutting down on how many cookies advertisers can force on to your devices, with changes coming to iPhones, iPads and Macs. The advertisers, naturally, are not happy.

    Digital cookies are small text files that can be used to track users as they surf the web, helping to build up a detailed profile of which sites they visit, what they do while they are there, and how long they do it for.

    It wasn’t always this way. The cookie has humble origins, as a small file that a website could drop on a user’s computer when it needed to remember something specific about them. That could be the contents of a shopping trolley, or the username they used to log in last time they visited the website. A slightly more advanced version of the same thing is still the core way that websites ensure that you are logged in – an authentication cookie is placed in your browser, meaning that you don’t have to log in each time you refresh the page.

  17. Anti-adblock is a lot more common than anyone thought, but it’s not hard to defeat

    In a new paper, researchers from the University of Iowa and UC Riverside reveal that anti-adblock is much more common than previously thought — the majority of anti-adblock is silent: publishers detect adblock, then silently log its existence and sometimes rewrite the page.

    The researchers show that it’s not hard to detect this detection and to prevent it — suggesting that the adblock arms-race has a lot of room to grow.

  18. FROM quantum computing and smartphones to self-driving cars, home thermostats and delivering the internet by balloon, Google or, technically, Alphabet, the holding company that the firm established in 2015, has its fingers in many pies. But the company’s main business, which pays for all of its dabblings elsewhere, is digital advertising, which in 2017 accounted for more than 86% of its $111bn revenue. It may seem odd, then, that Google’s latest move is to aid ad-blocking. On February 15th Chrome, its web browser, which has a 59% market share, switched on code to block certain online advertisements.

    In doing so it joins an established trend. By last year around 27% of American internet users had installed ad-blockers, according to eMarketer, a research firm (see chart). Third-party ad-blocking software is available already for Chrome but only for its desktop version. As well as being built in and thus on by default, the new blocker will work on smartphones.

    If ad-blocking makes the web a safer and more enjoyable experience for users, however, the trouble is that fewer ads being seen could mean fewer websites. The ad industry, indeed, is in an arms race with blocker-writers. Many sites now try to detect ad-blockers, and force users to disable them if they want to visit websites. The ad-blockers have retaliated with techniques to dodge the detectors, and so on. Some publishers, meanwhile, have been adapting in their own ways. Salon, a news site, invites ad-blocking visitors to let the site borrow their computers to mine cryptocurrency as another way to make money.

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