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When browsing the web, many users block advertisements for a surprisingly wide variety of reasons. The site operator can send the user whatever they want, often a mix of the sought after content, good ads, and terrible, tasteless or harmful ads. Assuming that the user has full control over their browser, is it ethical for them to only accept the content that they personally find acceptable, even if it reduces the effectiveness of the content provider's business model?

When I ask "is it ethical", I mean whether it will result in the greatest good and least harm for the individuals involved in a particular instance, and for society as a whole as this becomes a more common behavior. This ethical system is Consequentialism, according to an editor (Thanks!).

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When asking a question like this, you should be more precise about the ethical system you're asking about. Otherwise, this reads like a poll and not a philosophical question at all. Also, answers can be more precise then instead of trying to sum up all the possible positions. – iphigenie Feb 26 '13 at 11:05
What do you mean by "ethical system"? Do you mean like left/right wing politics? – Dan Ross Feb 26 '13 at 11:07
I'll google it. – Dan Ross Feb 26 '13 at 11:07
Wow, I had no idea how complex the field of ethics really is. I am reading a huge wikipedia article on ethics, and subpages on specific ethical systems. – Dan Ross Feb 26 '13 at 11:20
I really want this to be a good question, and I would certainly appreciate any other suggestions. Philosophy is not a subject that I have studied well enough to be familiar with the rules and terminology, aside from common knowledge. – Dan Ross Feb 26 '13 at 11:44
up vote 2 down vote accepted

I don't think we have any idea yet in the big picture. Is ad revenue the right way to support web sites? Are the costs of running web sites small enough so that they can be born as an incidental cost? Should your internet provider be charging more and then awarding some fraction of that to the sites you visit? Dunno. Society is complex; one could make some guesses using game theory, economics, and so on, but mostly we'll just have to wait and see how it turns out.

When it comes to an individual site, if advertisers get zero click-throughs they'll stop advertising there (or by some means the site will fail to earn money from having ads). Blocking ads is not necessarily any worse than letting them through but ignoring them. The bottom line is that usually merchandise needs to be sold, eventually, and if that never happens, careful advertisers will stop doing it. If your patronage is a substantial part of what is keeping a site afloat (very unlikely), then not being influenced by ads to detectably change your buying preferences is perhaps shooting yourself in the foot.

Otherwise, it's a classic case of the tragedy of the commons: there is a public good, it is supported by some, and you're not doing your part. You might also go do a potluck dinner and not bring anything; use roads and libraries and such and not pay taxes; cut down trees for your fireplace and not replant them (and not own the land they grow on); or any number of other things where you consume a resource that you and others rely upon without replenishing that resource in any way. Most ethical systems frown upon this, though the depth of sanction depends on the details. It's a clear violation of the Categorical Imperative, for example, and you wouldn't make this a rule in rule-based utilitarianism since everyone would probably end up worse off if everyone followed that rule. A few systems have genuine trouble with tragedy of the commons; ordinary utilitarianism is one of these, as it has no mechanism by which individuals can recognize collective harm and avoid it (e.g. it's better for me to not read ads, but if nobody reads ads and there's no web site, we're all worse off than we would be if we had the site and read ads).

In summary: this is typically not considered moral behavior, but as the harm is miniscule, the degree of sanction is, in most systems, quite mild. ("Tsk tsk!") There may be no sanction at all if e.g. you are not the intended audience so the ads don't really apply to you, but the incidental cost of you increasing network traffic a little is so miniscule as to be irrelevant. (Basically all utilitarian systems would say, "Oh, no worries then," while you'd still be on the wrong side of the Categorical Imperative unless you could very carefully craft your general maxim; rules-lawyering maxims is generally not considered to be good form e.g. because you're likely to suffer from bias due to self-interest.)

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The question has a mirror question: Is it ethical advertisers/websites sell information about you without your consent? Why assume that what advertisers/websites can learn about you cannot bring bad things to you? When the service is free, information about you is the merchandise. – Ricardo Feb 26 '13 at 18:07
@RicardoBevilaqua - Sure, there's a mirror question and it has pretty much all the same answers. The root question is is it bad to do things that help yourself and hurt others as long as you won't be caught and it only hurts a tiny bit (at least if it's only you doing it and not everyone), and in most ethical systems the answer is "it's bad (but maybe only a tiny bit)". – Rex Kerr Feb 26 '13 at 19:49
Is it bad but maybe only a tiny bit? Data about you provides companies with the ability to optimize prices in your purchases for maximum profit."At least if it's only you doing it and not everyone": What is this ethical system? – Ricardo Feb 26 '13 at 22:12
@RicardoBevilaqua - If capitalism works at all, it's when customers have choice; they can only fudge the prices a little before you'll have other better options. Also, the quote is part of the question, not a judgment of a system of ethics. – Rex Kerr Feb 26 '13 at 22:16
My own patronage may be insignificant to a particular site, but I am assuming that if what I am doing works well for me, then it will work for others, and that before long, a significant percentage of all internet users will block ads. Adblockers may even become a standard component of modern browsers, if it makes those browsers more popular with users. If it causes any harm, that harm will be multiplied by the increasing number of users who become oblivious to traditional internet advertising. – Dan Ross Feb 28 '13 at 3:53

The first problem is that there is no good comparison to the real world. The closest is sitting in a bookstore and reading the content then leaving without buying. But for multiple reasons this is not a perfect analogy.

The way the ads work matters as well. Depending on the site, the ads need to be viewed, the page needs to be viewed, or the ad needs to be clicked on.

So the "cost" of consuming the content can be viewed as either being forced to observe the ad, or a probability cost of you clicking on it.

It's not quite unethical in comparison to non-digital examples, but it isn't a "nice" thing to do towards the content creators.

So in terms of dollars, you would most likely need to click on ads to reward the content creator. But since ads are a major source of malware this is not always a good idea. Here you can also argue that since the ads may be malicious you are not obligated to click on them.

This issue is also similar to piracy, in that one must consider the "potential" price vs actual price given a marginal cost of zero due to digital products.

I use adblock-plus, ghostery, noscript, and a VPN myself.

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To quote TPB: AFK: "We prefer AFK (Away From Keyboard) over IRL (In Real Life), because we believe that the Internet is for real." They are hardcore nerds (compliments!) compared to me, but even in my case, roughly half of my human interaction is through the internet. This is mainly because I interact faster, and with larger groups, over the net, not because I spend most of my time online. Regarding piracy, which is pretty controversial by itself, the difference between adblocking is that most websites do not demand that I view their ads; they just try to show them.0 – Dan Ross Feb 28 '13 at 2:39
On a technical note, as I understand it, a VPN is just a tool for remote computer usage. Does that help you sanitize your view of the web somehow, or does it just fit in the same tight category of tools as the other three you mentioned? For the record, I use adblock-plus and ghostery myself, and I am considering a more convenient noscript alternative (yesscript?). – Dan Ross Feb 28 '13 at 3:41
And yes, it does disturb me that the content creators that I (mostly) respect may be offended, and even financially harmed, by me blocking their ads. I feel that discussing the situation and looking for solutions to the problems it creates are critical to the health of the internet. – Dan Ross Feb 28 '13 at 3:46
@DanRoss Using a VPN actually does affect the ads because they identify you using your IP address. For example, your google results would be different depending on whether you use the VPN or not. Also, noscript is annoying because of how effective it is. Can't really make it more user friendly :/ – user3235 Feb 28 '13 at 16:11
Ah, I see. I wish I could upvote. About noscript, that sounds like a challenge :) Maybe it could be combined with shared whitelists and blacklists to reduce the number of decisions the user has to make per site. I could see script filtering getting as complex as antivirus software. – Dan Ross Mar 1 '13 at 1:09

If users saw and clicked on ads, but never bought anything, then it would be the merchants who paid the advertiser suffering, instead of the content provider. The merchant would have to start looking for other ways to promote awareness of, and desire for, their product. The advertiser would start to become obsolete, and the "ad supported content" business model would deteriorate. I propose that this business model is doomed to the tragedy of the commons, and that society must evolve past it or protect it with force. There are alternatives, some more likely than others to succeed.

I would love to have more live interaction with the content providers, and would certainly be willing to pay for it with money, time, and labour. Debates, concerts, group art / cooking / hacking sessions, instruction and training in small classes, participatory filmmaking à la Jackass, interaction with architects before building my own home, the list is endless. Many of these activities could produce trivially replicated works of art, and I would give them away for free just to be cool and to make my society more vibrant, fun and useful for all of us.

This raises a concern for the welfare of the advertisers themselves, who the users are basically cutting out of the loop. I have a friend in advertising, living hand to mouth, so this is a personal concern for me as an individual, because the welfare of my peers affects the power of my social network to help me as an individual member; the same reasoning applies to a lesser extent to my society as a whole. Perhaps the advertisers need to see themselves as artists, and focus on working within this same framework to produce desirable art that promotes (or disparages) the products they would have advertised (or helped us ignore). Comedy, debates, and live reviews with Q&A sessions are all things that I could see a talented advertiser doing.

I am starting to see a pattern here: There is too much "one to world" interaction in our society, and not enough one to one or "one to group". Altering this imbalance will cost the consumer more than just downloading or 3D printing everything for free, but this could be OK as more live art in a capitalist society should prevent it's cost from becoming unreasonable. Canucks tickets, anyone?

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"concern for the welfare of the advertisers"? "ad supported content business model would deteriorate"? I think that ethics of blocking ads while still consuming content will not give you the best answer to your concern. Perhaps business modeling will do. – Ricardo Feb 28 '13 at 14:26
That isn't my main concern by a long shot, but the more I think about this, the more complex it becomes. I am simply reasoning to the best of my abilities, trying not to ignore other points of view. Would a philosopher consider that a mistake, or even impossible? I am not a philosopher, I just have philosophical questions every once in a while. – Dan Ross Mar 1 '13 at 1:15

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