Are PopUp Blockers Thieves?

Stephen Yagielowicz
There are certain facts of life that seem to escape folks. For instance, broadcast television is not provided free of charge by benevolent corporations simply for the amusement and edification of the populace; it is in fact the mechanism by which major advertisers attract the attention of consumers. In other words, we get free entertainment and information in exchange for being exposed to the sponsor's ads.

Sometimes these ads can be intrusive – such as when one appears at a critical moment in the plot, when you're hanging spell-bound to the edge of your chair. Other times, they can be elevated to works of art, such as the mega-dollar masterpieces displayed during half-time at the Super Bowl...

As the growth and reach of broadcast stations allowed millions to simply change channels during commercial breaks, avoiding the sponsor's advertising efforts which underwrote the programming offerings, collusive actions such as break synchronization (very common in the radio industry) where "all" of the channels in a given market aired their commercials simultaneously, removed the channel surfer's "reward" for switching program provider due to a commercial break.

While there is no practical way that exposure to advertising can be "forced" on viewers or listeners, let alone any type of measurable action demanded, the implied quid pro quo of programming for patronage remains.

Cable and satellite television upped the ante by offering many more programming options than were available by broadcast means alone, and rather than relying exclusively on advertising revenue, charged a premium for this service. With the sheer number of media outlets that are thus represented, and the disparity of their locations and time zones, break synchronization became much harder, and the opportunities for advertising avoidance increased dramatically, ensuring that a premium charge was unavoidable.

Still, commercials are commonplace across cable and television, with the exception of the "pay" channels. Typically offering first-run and other popular movies, these outlets provide ad-weary viewers with the opportunity to enjoy their favorite shows "interruption free." Even radio listeners can now enjoy commercial-free satellite reception, no matter where they are, through the XM network – for a monthly fee, of course...

These marketing models have translated into the arena of Cyberspace, and have at once become more pervasive, and at the same time, less effective, than their television and radio counterparts.

The Internet Connection
Let's move the paradigm into the digital age, and consider the similarities: "Free" web pages, unless run by hobbyists solely for the love of sharing what they do, or by organizations trying to promote their agenda, are typically "for profit" commercial operations supported by advertising revenue.

Just as in the examples above, information and entertainment is provided free of charge in exchange for exposure to advertising, either placed on the web page itself (as in the case of banner ads and text links), or as a separate entity (the infamous "pop up" ad).

While there are untold millions of web pages currently circulating on the Internet, the "channel surfing to avoid commercials" model is not usually translated here (unless the page in question has an unusually high ad to content ratio, or uses "abusive" or excessive advertising methods). In other words, a surfer who finds content of interest won't seek out another source of that content simply because a banner ad appears on that page. In this case, he or she will act much more like a print magazine reader, bypassing the advertising until he's enjoyed the content he sought, and then perhaps returning to the advertising to see if it is an offer of interest.

Still following the print magazine analogy, we can think of "pop ups" as those little insert cards that fall to the floor or appear in between pages while we read the article we were interested in. Even the ones that fall to the floor are often glanced at before being discarded, and sometimes they are even good and valuable offers of interest. Sure, these card stock inserts are "annoying," but a "fair" exchange of inconvenience for information, nonetheless.

But what happens if the consumer, unwilling to simply overlook the ads, were to purchase a "selective shredder" – a device like a standard paper shredder, but that only shreds the advertisements from a magazine while sparing the content? Or perhaps a device that would block TV commercials from broadcast? While ad blocking set-top boxes have been declared legal by the courts, does that make their use "right?"

While I would never justify the use of excessive "pop-up hells" where console after console pops to the point of forcing a system reboot, the judicious and sparing use of consoles provides a much needed revenue increase for many operators, and increases the effectiveness of navigation and "help" systems (among other applications), and their wholesale disablement by the consumer is not "right."

Perhaps an adult oriented publication might seem an odd place for a discussion of morals and ethics, and perhaps the message will fall on the deaf ears of the copyright infringing and content stealing "Napster Generation," but the fact remains that using an automated device to eliminate the revenue stream of an entity providing you with value in exchange for exposure to advertising is theft of service, plain and simple.

The final result of course will be an Internet "arms race" where developers will struggle to come up with better pop-up blockers, anti-blockers, anti-anti-blockers – the race goes on and on... And it would all be unnecessary, if Webmasters had shown some restraint in their use of pop-ups. Still, does abuse by some justify theft from all? Share your opinion below: Good luck! ~ Stephen