Over the last year, Germany has been a primary site of the ad blocking phenomenon. According to some estimates, German internet users are leaders among active ad blockers, with usage around 30%. Further, Germany is the home of Eyeo, the maker of what is likely the most popular ad blocking browser extension, Ad Block Plus. And Eyeo has been aggressive and public in its attempt to monetize ad blocking through its “acceptable ads” program, whereby Ad Block Plus users can opt-in to allow through unobtrusive ads that follow certain stylistic guidelines. Eyeo charges large corporations for the privilege of being deemed “acceptable,” and the initiative seems to be quite successful in generating revenue for the company. They have 43 employees currently and are looking to grow to over 60. The Cologne-based firm has become one of the hottest tech startups in Germany, much to the chagrin of German publishers and advertisers, and was profiled in Der Spiegel this week, the largest Germany weekly magazine.
Refusing to back down, Springer decided to sue a Youtube user who demonstrated in a video tutorial how to defeat the block, and then Springer sued Eyeo as well, for discussing how to defeat the block in their user forums. Springer claims that tools to defeat the block are an illegal technology as they defeat protections for copyrighted material, in the same manner that tools to defeat the encryption of DVDs is against the law (in Germany and elsewhere). Needless to say, this is a wholly original interpretation of the law, and a German legal expert quoted by Golem, considers it unlikely to actually stand up in court. More likely Springer is using the threat of costly legal action to scare others from widely distributing, or even discussing online, ways to get around their paywall. And if it somehow was to do damage to Eyeo, Springer would be quite happy with that result. The editor-in-chief of Bild, Julian Reichelt has been especially vocal in his attacks on Eyeo, calling them “extortionists” who will destroy “good journalism.”
Many in Germany would question the relationship between the Bild newspaper and “journalism” at all, but Springer clearly considers this a fight it must undertake. But it is hard to imagine that the answer to ad blocking is for publishers to follow the path of the film and music industries and use the legal system to prevent behavior that threatens established business models. Especially when companies with clout, like Apple, throw their considerable weight behind ad blocking tools. And even more, with ad blocking now a real enterprise endeavor for companies like Eyeo, whose entire existence depends on ad blocking, there is extreme financial incentive to take this fight to the end. While tiny Eyeo might be dwarfed by Springer’s resources, they are likely to get enough investment and community support to fight back tooth and nail. Of course, they essentially have no other choice.