What would Kant do? Ad blocking is a problem, but it's ethical

Ethicists have a message for publishers who condemn ad blockers: take a look in a mirror.

Publishers like to trot out the ethical argument when debating the harms of ad blocking: Reading an article while blocking its ads is effectively stealing and violates the implicit contract between publishers and readers. “Every time you block an ad, what you’re really blocking is food from entering a child’s mouth,” wrote Tom’s Guide editorial director Avram Piltch wrote in May.

But ethicists say that questioning the ethics of ad blocking ignores that neither publishers nor their digital advertising partners are exactly on firm ethical ground either.

Ethicists argue that publishers have brought ad blocking upon themselves by creating a Web reading environment that’s often hostile to readers. Sites today are clogged with an increasing number of intrusive banners, pop ups and auto-play video ads that introduce both performance and security problems, such as the July hack that used Yahoo’s ad network to infect millions of Yahoo visitors with malware.

“Ad blocking is a defensive move,” said Irina Raicu, Internet Ethics Program manager at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “It seems wrong to characterize it as unethical when the practice that made it arise is unethical, too.”

That explains the appeal of ad blockers, which not only make pages easier to read but also speeds up load times and cut down on security risks. More people are understanding the appeal. There are over 144 million active ad block users around the world, according to a 2014 report from PageFair and Adobe.

David Whittier, a former professor of cyberethics at Boston University, said the clearest defense of ad blocking comes from utilitarianism, which suggests that the most ethical action is the one that maximizes utility. “In this case, ad blocking is completely ethical because it by far benefits more people than it harms,” he said. “Anyone who says that online advertising is annoying and distracting is absolutely right.”

Further complicating the deal between publishers and readers are all the ad tech companies and ad networks that publishers plug into their pages. These third parties, which track readers across the Web and use the data to serve targeted ads, are still largely invisible to most people, who don’t get a full picture of all the parties in the transaction. This, ethicists argue, is why there’s nothing ethicially wrong with people using ad blockers to protect themselves.

“If this was a deal between users and publishers, it would be easier to go for, but as soon as you introduce these intermediaries, it looks a lot less solicited and more unethical,” said Robin Wilton, director for Identity and Privacy at the Internet Society. “When someone signs a contract, implicit or otherwise, you’re talking about informed consent, which doesn’t exist here.”

But one ethical wrinkle to the pro-ad blocking argument is the question of what happens to the Web when a critical mass of people start using ad blocking software and make it nearly impossible for publishers to make money. For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, this was core to the concept of the Categorical Imperative, part of which holds that actions are only ethical if everyone did them all the time.

Ethicists don’t have much compassion here either, and argue that readers aren’t ethically obligated to support business models that can’t sustain themselves.

“It’s not unethical to do things because other people don’t like them. And it’s not always unethical to do things that hurt a business,” said Sara Baase, Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at San Diego State University. “If too many people block ads, some currently free online material might no longer be free. That’s a natural result of the choices of a large number of consumers.”