A few days ago, I unexpectedly had the unpleasant experience of using a mobile device without ad blocking enabled. I had just flashed the latest “Oreo” firmware for my Android-powered Nexus 5X cellphone, and was shocked to find ads appearing when I browsed with Chrome. For years, I’ve been using the AdAway application on my phones, to manipulate the Hosts file of the operating system to prevent ads from being resolved on my phone. It works quite well and prevents ads from showing up in other mobile applications as well, not just when browsing.
To my horror, the firmware update was preventing AdAway from editing the necessary hosts files. As a short term fix I could switch to using Firefox with the uBlockOrigin plug-in installed, but I generally use Chrome, and definitely do not want to give up on AdAway. I tried a few possible fixes I found online, but it took me a day or so before I realized it was merely operator error. I had not updated the AdAway application in some time, and since it does not exist in the Google App store it does not update on its own. A quick download and re-installation of the latest AdAway version and I was back to where I wanted to be, with ads banned from my device. Whew.
The memorable thing, aside from my technical incompetence, was just how uncomfortable I felt with ads re-appearing on my phone. I use my phone way too much, and as such, have a very intimate relationship with it. Feeling a loss of control, of having things inflicted upon me via my phone, and not being able to assert my preference for an ad-free experience, was both visceral and unpleasant. Surfing the web with ads is simply something I almost never have to do, because of my use of ad blocking technologies on all my devices. It is not an experience I ever want to have, and I will go to great lengths to make sure I do not, both for aesthetic reasons and a belief in the necessity of retaining autonomy over my technology.
I am probably an outlier in this regard, as my hostility to advertising is profound and long-standing (I was blocking ads from the internet in the 1990s), but I suspect my negative reaction to essentially “going backwards” in terms of ad avoidance is likely very common among those who block ads. Once you have experienced an ad-free internet, it is VERY difficult, I believe, to accept advertising back in one’s visual environment. I expect that statistics would underscore this point, that ad avoidance is a “sticky” phenomenon for users, and that very few ad blockers ever voluntarily go back to an ad cluttered environment, at least without a fight. They will do all in their power to continue to avoid ads, and will take active measures to ensure their choice gets respected by their devices. I am far from convinced that recent moves by ad dependent companies, in publishing and technology, to get ad blockers to surrender to advertising will be successful.
And from the standpoint of ad blocking as a useful tactic against surveillance capitalism, the stickiness of it, the obvious value it brings to users makes it a very formidable weapon. Getting users aware and invested in maintaining an ad free online lifestyle could be a crucial step in the longer-term struggle to get users committed and active in their own-self defense against tracking and surveillance.