The reaction of content providers to ad avoidance by their have been negative, but mostly limited to public criticism, with occasional technical counter-measures. A number of German media companies took a much more forceful step against ad-blocking this week, however, by suing Eyeo GmbH, the parent company to the popular Ad Block Plus browser extension. Filing a lawsuit in Munich, major German media companies including ProSiebenSat.1, RTL subsidiary IP Deutschland, Focus and Axel Springer appear to be aggressively targeting Eyeo/Ad Block Plus as the most popular browser extension and because of Eyeo’s controversial “acceptable ad” white-listing program.
Derided by some as “blackmail,” the program lets some ads through the Ad Block Plus filters, either on “quality” grounds as Eyeo maintains or via financial payment, as Eyeo’s critics emphasize. The exact nature of the lawsuit is not exactly clear from the early reports, and the statements quoted in German media do not indicate if the accusation against Eyeo is specific to their “acceptable ad” program or if it tries to ban ad blocking in general.
While I can read German, I’m far from a legal expert on German commercial law, so it’s hard to really know what is likely to happen when/if this actually reaches a courtroom. Nonetheless, the lawsuit does strike me as ultimately futile, even if the media companies were successful in eliminating Eyeo and Ad Block Plus. While Ad Block Plus is clearly the most popular Firefox ad avoidance extension, it is far from alone, and there are a number of competitors, many of whom are not supported by a commercial entity. Not to mention the vast number of purely technical methods for blocking ads, such as simply using a HOST file to block unwanted domains. Eyeo might make a particularly juicy (or irritating) target for a litigious media owner, but ad avoidance as a phenomenon is far from reliant on it for long term survival. Not to mention the fact that a lawsuit like this will only increase awareness of Ad Block Plus to users.
Of course the other question is what kind of numbers are these particular media properties and advertisers seeing that has convinced them of ad blocking’s effect on their bottom line? Is it a real threat, or are they carrying out a preemptive campaign before it becomes an issue? Germany does have a relatively tech-savvy and politically engaged readership, as the short-lived success of the German Pirate Party has shown. In a rather inflammatory editorial from January, Thomas Port, managing director for Seven-One Media, and the public face of the companies suing Eyeo, speaks of one quarter of readers blocking ads at major news sites, an even higher percentage at tech sites and up to 50% at gaming websites.
Those numbers seem quite high, much higher than anything we have heard from English speaking publishers, to my knowledge. I will be very interested to see real numbers from the lawsuit, if that becomes material to the case. And to find out how those numbers are calculated. Do they only count Ad Block Plus users? Other extensions? Other methods for blocking ads? Were they provided by Eyeo themselves in an attempt to negotiate fees for their white-list? And what caused the media companies to finally take action, when in Port’s statement from January, the key was to “make readers aware of ad avoidance’s negative effects and to increase the attractiveness of net advertising.” Seven months later it appears those strategies were not paying off for Port and his colleagues.