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Why Ad Blockers Make Facebook Even More Powerful

One of the most common criticisms leveled at ad-blocking companies is that they are little more than extortionists. Eyeo GmbH—the company that owns Adblock Plus, the most-used ad blocker—takes money to whitelist websites from its ad blockers, despite purporting to fight for an ad-free web. Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other internet companies have all paid the fee. But one major player has resisted.

Facebook is a mobile company. Eighty-four percent of its Q2 ad revenue came from mobile, which is moderately immune to the negative effects of ad blockers. On the mobile web, ad blockers are growing, but haven’t risen to the level of desktop usage (the IAB puts the numbers at 15 and 26 percent, respectively). And on Facebook’s app, ad blocking is impossible.

But that doesn’t mean that Facebook is content to allow ad blocking on its desktop site. Instead of paying Eyeo GmbH, the company recently announced that it is fighting ad-blocking software head on.

Per Facebook:

Some ad blocking companies accept money in exchange for showing ads that they previously blocked — a practice that is at best confusing to people and that reduces the funding needed to support the journalism and other free services that we enjoy on the web. Facebook is one of those free services, and ads support our mission of giving people the power to share and making the world more open and connected. Rather than paying ad blocking companies to unblock the ads we show — as some of these companies have invited us to do in the past — we’re putting control in people’s hands with our updated ad preferences and our other advertising controls.

So far, Facebook is trying to confuse ad blockers with a clever sleight of hand. Since its ads closely resemble the content surrounding it, the company is coding in-feed ads to resemble the code of normal posts, according to Fortune. The idea is ad blockers will block all Facebook content, not just ads. In turn, Facebook users will be forced to turn off their ad blocker to get any use out of Facebook.

A few hours after that announcement, however, Adblock Plus announced that it had created a workaround, with an updated filter that blocks ads Facebook had said were impervious to ad-blocking tools. Facebook has yet to respond.

It’s hard to imagine that Facebook didn’t know it was starting a war with ad blockers. The company seems content to spend its vastly superior resources and coding mastery to fight them.

Meanwhile, a duo of Ivy Leaguers have created a tool that blocks the ads using the “Sponsorship” label required by the FTC against Facebook, graying out and marking any sponsored posts with “This is an ad.” The creator, Arvind Narayanan, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton, claims that his tool proves that Facebook can never fully block the ad blockers. Since the sponsorship labels will always be required and aren’t based on manipulatable code, it’s a permanent fixture that ad-blocking companies can use to mark advertisements.

It’s hard to imagine that Facebook didn’t know it was starting a war with ad blockers. The company seems content to spend its vastly superior resources and coding mastery to fight them.

For his part, Narayanan argues that Facebook’s move is part of a larger effort to “make ad blockers look like the bad guys.” Considering that Facebook paired its anti-ad-blocking announcement with another about more user control over advertising, that makes a lot of sense. As Narayanan notes, Facebook’s ads are undoubtedly more user-friendly than your average ad network’s. No risk of malware, guaranteed labeling, and more obvious privacy controls all make for a better advertising experience than the open web.

And even if Facebook loses a few battles here and there in the war against ad blockers, there can only be one result: The network will be more advertiser-friendly than ever. While publishers and ad networks are still struggling to find a solution to the ad-blocking problem, Facebook can rest easy knowing that its more closed platform and immense resources will, at the very least, blunt the effectiveness of ad blockers. Then, Facebook can turn to advertisers in full confidence that its platform is superior to other ad networks—minimal ad blocking and no fraud here.

Critically, Facebook can say the same thing to publishers. While publishers risk losing a significant portion of their revenue from ad blockers and fraud on the open web, advertising is almost guaranteed to be served on Instant Articles, Facebook Video, and, soon enough, Facebook Live.

It’s a simple advantage, but it’s one that other advertising networks simply can’t match.

Image by Klaus-Dieter Thill/EyeEm/Getty Images
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