New 'Perceptual' Ad Blocking Tech Doesn't Win The Ad Blocking War, But It May Put Advertisers On Their Heels… Permanently

from the the-mole-finally-got-whacked dept

We’ve long documented how there’s a growing array of websites that seem intent on shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to “defeating” ad blocking. Quite often that includes punishing customers for a website’s own misdeeds, or using ham-fisted (and frankly often broken) systems that attempt to block the ad blockers. Of course, this tends to obfuscate why these users are using blockers in the first place, whether it’s to keep ads from eating their broadband usage allotments, or simply as an attempt to protect themselves from “ads” that are often indistinguishable from malware.

The bottom line is that thanks to aggressive, poorly designed or downright hostile ads, many consumers quite justly now feel that ad blockers are an essential part of their privacy and security. Here at Techdirt, we long ago decided to let our visitors decide what their ad experience looks like, letting visitors disable ads entirely if that’s they’re preference (we just, of course, hope they’ll try to support us in other ways). Elsewhere though, websites are engaged in what feels like a futile game of Whac-a-Mole that seems increasingly obvious (to some) won’t be “winnable.”

New developments on the ad block front seem to indicate this game of Whac-a-Mole may soon end up with the mole being — well — most decidedly whacked.

Princeton and Stanford researchers say they’ve developed a new method of blocking advertisements that detects ads the same way human beings do — by simply looking at things like container sizes, graphical layout, and words like “Sponsored” (usually mandated by regulations or voluntary, cross-industry commitments). Computer scientist Arvind Narayanan and his colleagues have published a new paper (pdf) and proof-of-concept code for something they’re calling a Perceptual Ad Blocker. Their paper describes the new technology as such:

“Perceptual ad blocking seeks to improve resilience against ad obfuscation and minimize manual effort needed to create ad blockers. We rely on the key insight that ads are legally required to be clearly recognizable by humans. To make the method robust, we deliberately ignore all signals invisible to humans, including URLs and markup. Instead we consider visual and behavioral information. For example, an ad may include the tex “Sponsored” or ‘Close Ad” within its boundaries, either directly or when hovered over. We expect perceptual ad blocking to be less prone to an “arms race.”

Over at Freedom to Tinker, Narayanan is quick to point out that this new technology isn’t “undefeatable” (as some websites quickly suggested), but it does certainly tilt the ad block battlefield in favor of the end user. He notes that the technology was developed in response to Facebook’s decision to integrate ads that look like regular posts in the user’s news feed, something systems like AdBlock haven’t been able to detect (some smaller blockers like uBlock Origin have been able to, but apparently have such a small market share they’ve yet to get Facebook’s attention).

The other ad blocking obstacle that Narayanan’s perceptual ad blocker addresses is the growing numbers of websites that believe they’ve “solved” the problem by blocking users that block ad blockers. In short, it does this by convincing the web browser to effectively lie to any script trying to determine ad blocker use:

“The second prong of an ad blocking strategy is to deal with websites that try to detect (and in turn block) ad blockers. To do this, we introduce the idea of stealth. The only way that a script on a web page can ?see? what?s drawn on the screen is to ask the user?s browser to describe it. But ad blocking extensions can control the browser! Not perfectly, but well enough to get the browser to convincingly lie to the web page script about the very existence of the ad blocker. Our proof-of-concept stealthy ad blocker successfully blocked ads and hid its existence on all 50 websites we looked at that are known to deploy anti-adblocking scripts. Finally, we have also investigated ways to detect and block the ad blocking detection scripts themselves. We found that this is feasible but cumbersome; at any rate, it is unnecessary as long as stealthy ad blocking is successful.

The researchers have developed both a standard and Facebook specific Chrome extension that you can try yourself, and they have no problem with identifying these types of integrated ads:

The researchers have yet to enable the actual blocking component of their ad blockers to, they say, “avoid taking sides on the ethics of ad blocking.”

Now you’d like to think that should perceptual ad blocking be as effective as they’re claiming, websites and advertisers would be forced to do some soul-searching into why users are flocking to ad blockers in the first place. But most of us know many of these websites won’t learn a damn thing in this scenario, and may engage in behavior that forces users to somehow interact with the ads if they want the page to load. Narayanan is quick to point out that this — like ad block blockers already have — could only drive users away from these websites even faster:

“If publishers are willing to intrude on users? attention by making them interact with ads, it does seem unlikely that ad blockers can succeed. But that will also drive away many users, and it?s not clear how many publishers would be willing to make that trade off. Sponsored content / native advertising is again a topic where the law has something to say. These need to be identified clearly as sponsored (and for the most part they are). We?ve found that people aren?t good at noticing these disclosures, but browser extensions can be! Ad blockers could take on the role of prominently alerting readers when a link they?re about to click on is in fact sponsored content.”

If perceptual ad blockers are half as successful as the researchers claim they can be, many sites and advertisers have two options. One is to finally take serious stock of why ad block use has skyrocketed (and their own culpability for it) and develop more consumer-centric and creative monetization and advertising efforts. The other is to cry more, double down on blaming visitors for their adaptation failures, design systems that break the internet and annoy site visitors even further, or try to use the law to hamstring the use of ad blockers (an uphill climb, and in some places potentially a two-way street).

If stopping ad blockers truly is a fool’s errand (and these researchers strongly believe it is), there’s really only one choice that makes any real sense.

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Comments on “New 'Perceptual' Ad Blocking Tech Doesn't Win The Ad Blocking War, But It May Put Advertisers On Their Heels… Permanently”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

The industry has all of these magical ideas they tout, but the websites demand better anti-blocking tech.

They refuse to understand how shitty the advertising they push on their consumers is, and demand consumers just take it. You don’t matter, the few pennies matter more.

It would be nice if there was some sort of government body who was charged with protecting consumers who gave a fsck. Do you think if a website/ad network could be sued for the costs of prying malware out of a victims computer… they might finally decide to clean up their act?

Bandwidth caps eaten away, your machine locked up by ransomware, video blaring away before the page loads. How did they get to a point where they decided to say fsck the consumers, we need these pennies more?

Chasing the imaginary money & punishing consumers who refuse to get shit upon… something something **AA’s?

History keeps repeating, and no one learns.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

They are saying that a government body that regulates how ads can behave is censorship and taking away choice of the corporations and consumers.

Just like net neutrality and privacy rules do, somehow. Remember how television was destroyed by limiting the amount of ad time? Or the inability to advertise cigarettes? Remember how much better TV became when they were allowed to start advertising prescription drugs? Yeah, me too!

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

So you think stopping ad networks from installing Malware/Ransomware on peoples computers is censorship?

You’re a special kind of retarded aren’t you.

The industry refuses to fix themselves.
Their clients refuse to demand it be fixed.

As it costs consumers money to fix the harm these asshats force unto them, it would seem that what they are doing is a ‘Bad Thing™’.

Now reread what I actually wrote without your Infowars secret decoder specs on and apologize you lickspittle fscknugget.

Machin Shin says:

Re: Re:

The company I work for is sadly one of the ones that can’t seem to understand. Really it is those in advertising thinking they have come up with some “awesome idea”. They tell the owner and he just sees $$$$$$$. Then our web guy gets told to setup that “awesome” auto-play video ad complete with audio.

I about lost it one day, heard the head of advertising talking about wanting pop-under ads. Just want to scream at these idiots. Sure someone might pay well for that to start with, but once we run off the last of our viewers with shitty ads the advertisers will leave.

Really sucks to work IT at a company and be totally embarrassed by the company website. I can’t even stand to visit the site without ad-blockers running because the shitty scripts from the ads will lock up any machine short of a gaming rig.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Nowhere to go BUT down

One is to finally take serious stock of why ad block use has skyrocketed (and their own culpability for it) and develop more consumer-centric and creative monetization and advertising efforts. The other is to cry more, double down on blaming visitors for their adaptation failures, design systems that break the internet and annoy site visitors even further, or try to use the law to hamstring the use of ad blockers (an uphill climb, and in some places potentially a two-way street).

I’m probably giving them way more credit than they deserve, but it’s possible that at least some of the ad companies have realized that at this point, for many people, ads are seen as so toxic and dangerous that there’s nothing they could do so get people to view them willingly, so they have to be sleazy in order to stay in business.

Beyond the insanely annoying ads, at this point my primary reason for having an ad-blocker, and one that ensures that it will never be disabled, is not convenience, it’s security. I’d be willing to put up with a moderate amount of ads if I could be sure that an infected one wasn’t in the pile, but as that’s something I’d only learn too late, it’s far too big a risk. A site asking me to disable my ad-blocker is little different than one asking me to disable my anti-virus program, it’s simply not happening.

When ads became such a major vector for malware and viruses that even major sites could end up serving infected ads, and the response from the ad companies was an indifferent ‘not our problem’, it’s more than a little absurd for them to then lash out against those that took basic security measures and blocked them all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Nowhere to go BUT down

Agreed. The reasons I use ad blockers are:
1) security/malware
2) privacy/tracking
3) bandwidth (e.g. video ads)

Annoyance with ads themselves is rarely a concern anymore. Yes there are the occasional places that still try pop-ups, or make you see the ad before clicking through to the content. But for the most part, I’m perfectly OK with ads that don’t mess with my 3 main concerns.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Nowhere to go BUT down

4) Breaking the “Find” feature.

When I revisit a topic here with a large number of posts, I’ll often type my name into the browser’s “Find on page” textbox. That way not only are new posts highlighted, but my own posts have my name highlighted in yellow. It’s a quick way to see if anyone replied to my posts.

But that’s broken with the ad blocker turned off. The Find highlighting gets cleared, I think every time a video ad reloads.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Nowhere to go BUT down

5) To prevent some rogue JS app from crashing my browser.

I’m not kidding, years ago on Firefox and IE there were certain ads I’ve had the displeasure of encountering that would either lockup and crash the browser or outright lockup my PC (mind you it was on an old eMachines PC with an AMD Athlon XP CPU but it wasn’t like terrible for the time). That taught me to always keep my ad block on. Sorry, but if the advertiser networks are going to write complex JS they shouldn’t hire idiots to write it.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Nowhere to go BUT down

6) To clean up page clutter.

On sites without ads, there is often reasonable use of whitespace, leaving space empty for both visual and “click in the window without triggering anything” reasons.

On sites with ads, the entire page tends to be cluttered with objects, to the point that frequently even clicking in what looks like empty space will actually trigger a hyperlink to whatever page the ad is pointing to.

I’ve started to use “clutter” as a curse word in the past year or two, for unrelated reasons, and the idea holds up just as well on the WWW as it does elsewhere.

Anonymous Coward says:

I have never purchased any item that was advertised to me on my computer / phone / tablet. Its sad because some of the stuff I really liked, but when I go to amazon to look up something and then 5 minutes later I have an amazon ad plastered across my phones screen for that item, I just say no. Same goes for other companies. I’m tired of being targeted, I’m tired of having my searches used to send me ads. I’ve even found myself going to brick and mortar stores more now than in the past due to the intrusiveness of online ads and marketing. Sometimes, its nice to just pick out an item, slap down a 20, and walk out knowing I will never get a competitors ad for the same item in a different color 10 minutes later.

Christenson says:

On Browser Design

Let’s back up a minute:

First, we all should be up in arms that anything coming over a browser, ever, is a security problem. That information versus executable code distinction is extremely useful and should not be broken down without a very good reason…and executable code should be able to be bounded effectively.

Second, there’s nothing, especially if the user is handicapped, that says the browser has to be honest about the perceptual experience of the end user. Screen readers, debuggers, hell, just walking away for a cup of joe, all mean that that full-page splash has just gone unseen…and we all know about click-fraud!

Third, its still an arms race…think about the “I am a human” tests that now litter the web…what if you have to solve a puzzle (and look at the instructions in the ad) before the content you wanted was downloaded.

Of course, the further along this arms race goes, the more difference appears between “simple” websites and those that are trying to force ads.

David (profile) says:

Flash, just don't

Flash in ads is the very reason I started using ad blockers and NoScript. We have constant issues with Flash, the security is a disaster and is quite possibly an intractable problem. The Flash toolkit (or whatever they create Flash SW with) is capable of producing HTML output instead of Flash. Yet, time and again I get the notice that X could not be run because I need to enable/update Flash. Again.

Once they completely stop using Flash. I will consider white listing some of the providers. But, cautiously.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ads never worked for me.

Advertisements have never induced me to purchase anything. Sales flyers (in the mail or newspapers), don’t work. Ads have never made me think, ‘gotta have that!’ But quite often I have found ads repellent and offensive, all too often I feel that the advertisers think the consumers are suckers, so the few ads to I do see are actually counter productive.

Have been serious avoiding Internet ads since Windows 98 era, and the experience without ads is so much nicer!

Flash, JS, and Silver Light are also seriously avoided, like a virulent disease.

Chuck says:

Re: Ads never worked for me.

They work for me, but I’ve never let anyone know that directly.

By which I mean, I never, ever, EVER click ads. If I see one that’s interesting to me (I do run Adblock Plus with 9 different filter lists plus 140+ custom filters, so that’s rare, but it happens) then I simply open a new tab and go directly to the site in question. In this way, the business isn’t penalized, but the advertising firm is. If I make a purchase as a result of this, I will routinely point out that I’ve intentionally circumvented their advertiser’s system and I’m buying their product DESPITE the ads, not because of it.

I’ve gotten 7 or 8 messages back where the businesses themselves tacitly admit that they don’t like their own ads. Two of them told me they were surprised because they’d been running ads for over a year and I was the first person to ever make a purchase off them. Even the “customers” in this equation – which are the companies paying the ad firms to run their ads, not consumers – don’t like this system. The only people genuinely happy with the advertising status quo are the ad agencies themselves.

Two more quick notes: First, I’ve bought 2 Techdirt T-Shirts and I freaking love them. Similarly, I’ve bought a premium Nexus Mods membership and other things specifically because I do want to support these sites, I’m just not willing to open myself up to all the cesspool of issues that advertising creates to do it. Second, I don’t block Google’s AdSense ads. Privacy concerns aside, text-only ads are neither obnoxious nor (usually) security concerns. If the entire industry could do the right thing and adopt Google’s respect-other-peoples-sanity model, I doubt ad blockers would’ve ever even become a thing. Food for thought, ad guys.

Bob says:

TV vs internet

I’m guessing that advertisers are trying to replicate what worked for TV on the internet. Problem is TV is a passive action so displaying an ad is not considered as annoying because it is just part of the background noise of the station.

The internet is a much more active engagement and people don’t want someone popping in unannounced like banner ads.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: TV vs internet

Oh, I don’t know. The overlay station IDs and show promos (and i think some actual ads) became so annoying they were toned down a bit.

People still complained any time the advertising per hour increased.

But remotes and DVRs and a trip to the fridge or loo are great for commercial breaks in a passive viewing scenario too. You are absolutely right about the internet, i just don’t know that what they did with the tv model really always worked for tv so well, either.

Richard M (profile) says:

uBlock is much better than AdBlock

I have been using uBlock for quite awhile now and it is much better than AdBlock. Does a better job and does not suck up resources and leak memory like Adblock does.

The fact that some sites do not realize I am blocking ads is just a added plus.

Site owners have shown they can not be trusted to not crash my browsers by poorly designed and malicious ads. I honestly do not generally care about the ads themselves if they were not the spawn from hell. Well that and trying to track every move I make online so now I pretty much block everything except for a few sites I trust.

No pity for them from me, they are getting exactly what they deserve.

Professor Ronny says:

Like someone else said, I started using an ad blocker because of all the flash ads. Many of those have gone away but once I experienced the web without ads, I’m not going back.

TV is the same way. Once I got a TiVo and could skip the commercials, I almost never see a commercial, I just skip them. About the only TV I watch without the TiVo is breaking news.

No matter if it is TV or websites, once you piss off your customers, you never get them back.

Thad (user link) says:

I think it would be fairly trivial for an ad blocker to assume that modals that show on page load, or that are triggered after a setTimeout(), are pretty much always ads.

Modals have a purpose and can be used for good — basically by using them the same way on a website as they’re used in programs. But I’ve had about enough of them being used as modern-day popup ads.

Also, I’d really like a mobile browser that just straight-up fucking ignores position: fixed. Sticky navbars are fine on my 27" desktop monitor, but they are very much not fine on my 5" phone screen, especially in landscape.

Kronomex (profile) says:

A recent new trick I’ve come across is when uploaders block the download because I dare to use an ad blocker. I’m not about to stop using script and ad blocking tools because bloody advertisers continue to whine about lost income. If a site wants to stop me from accessing them because I won’t let them track me, bombard me with ads, etc then I am quite happy not visit it again.

Will advertisers wake up? Not likely, they’ll just continue to try and develop new ways to block the blockers and make themselves even more unpopular. I’m surprised they haven’t started throwing pig troughs of money politicians (mostly Republicans no doubt) to put a stop to this dastardly crime be perpetrated upon them.

Joe P says:


Until recently, I blocked ads because of the intrusiveness and privacy issues. The fact that the ad networks are malware vectors justified this.

Now that the U.S. has no privacy from the ISP, I am using Tor and seeing more ads. My ISP was one that wanted the ability to make money from our aggregated use patterns. I wonder how they feel about more people using Tor and their bandwidth increase.

Anon E. Mous (profile) says:

Webmasters have been trying to monetize traffic for ages, the problem is some have just dont give a shit what kind of ad’s they serve up as long as they are getting paid and that is the problem.

Some webmasters have gone to the extreme to get coin when someone happens upon their website, having banner ads and ad’s on the side of the site just weren’t good enough so then became the scrolling ads, then the op up ads, then the pop under ad’s, then the mouse over ads, then the redirects, then ad overlays,then the Iframes, and on and on.

The AD industry has itself to blame for this due to the fact that they have a hand in creating this mess. The Ad industry has made Ad’s and the way they can be delivered so obtrusive that people are past the point of annoyed with it, webmasters also shoulder part of the blame for the type of Ads they are using on their site and serving to a visitor.

Some websites Ads and tactics to get clicks just make a person not want to bother going on the site any further and they close it out and go elsewhere. If you asked my honest opinion Streaming sites Ad’s have become unbearable even with Ad Blocking, it’s bad enough that even adult webmasters are looking like saints and they had a reputation as some of the worst for Ad’s that did all sorts of shit when you landed on one of their websites.

Even with how prevalent Ad blocking has become look at some of the webmasters and advertisers and their response has been. Some Webmasters and advertisers see the Ad blocking as a sign that they are shooting themselves and their webmaster partners with obtrusive ads and are rethinking how they serve those ad’s to not be so obtrusive.

And there are those Advertisers and webmasters who thwart anyone with an ad blocker from surfing there site or make it so navigation doesnt work correctly or content wont work or be served or is outright blocked. Instead of trying to see what would serve them better the Advertisers and webmaster have taken the thermonuclear war approach and have declared war on ad blockers and those who use them.

Honestly Ads have become intrusive enough on some sites even with Ad blocking that I just dont go to those sites anymore, and for those that want me to turn off my ad blocker or I dont get to see their content I say “Thanks, but I dont think so” and I move along, because there is still too much obtrusive and malware laden ad’s out there for my liking.

I have sites I visit where I know there are ad’s, and I have whitelisted because their ads arent full of pop ups, pop unders, mouse over, I frames and redirecting me to death and I have no problem with them.

The ones that have gone all nuclear war on my ad blocking, I just plain quit going to their sites, plenty of other places on the web where I can go where I dont have to deal with crap ads and webmasters who could give a rats ass what they serve up or how they serve up ads.

Sorry but advertisers and webmaster have to have a look in the mirror when it comes to what they are doing to monetize their websites with the type of ads and they way they choose to serve them to their sites visitors

John85851 (profile) says:

Most Facebook ads are irrelevant

I think the larger problem with Facebook ads is the irrelevance. Facebook has built its business on being able to data-mine individual users’ interests down to the molecule.

If they know I like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Doctor Who, why are they showing me ads for realtors in my neighborhood? Why not show me an ad for “Rogue One” or Doctor Who DVD’s? Or why not show me some ads for these kinds of toys? Not only would I click on these ads, but I’d very probably buy something from the advertiser’s website.

But the more irrelevant ads they show me, the more likely I am to block them all.

Jermaine Falken says:

Advertisers are Scum. Period.

Why ad blocker users do so is obvious, given the complete lack of scruples advertisers have. They never learn, instead doubling down. Check this one out. Companies are lobbying the FCC to be allowed to spam voice mail without ringing your phone first. What these scumbags fail to realise is that they will kill voice mail in short order. People will merely abandon voice mail and merely check the last incoming call on the list on their phone. I already do this because I HATE voice mail and my voice mail is deliberately not aligned. People only leave their number anyways resulting in phone tag, wasting time and minutes.

Just another frontier for spammers…

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