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 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.