AdBlock Plus lets some advertisers pay to play

The hugely popular browser extension charges a fee from big advertisers such as Google to let some ads go through

Published July 5, 2013 7:15PM (EDT)

If you use AdBlock Plus to keep your Web browsing experiencing free of annoying clutter, this is the kind of tweet that might grab your attention:

[embedtweet id="353198089722540033"]

Millions of people use AdBlock Plus. Per Wikipedia, AdBlock Plus is the single most popular extension of any kinde for Firefox. But I'm betting that a hefty percentage of those millions don't realize that major advertisers, including Google, can pay to have some of their ads "whitelisted" -- in essence, given a free pass through AdBlock Plus.

The so-called "Acceptable Ads" feature is turned on by default, meaning that users have to specifically opt-out if they don't want to see such ads. There seems to be no doubt that AdBlock is generating some sort of revenue stream from the practice. AdBlock Pro's own Frequently Asked Questions section addresses the issue:

Do companies pay you for being added to the list?

Whitelisting is free for all small websites and blogs. However, managing this list requires significant effort on our side and this task cannot be completely taken over by volunteers as it happens with common filter lists. That's why we are being paid by some larger properties that serve nonintrusive advertisements that want to participate in the Acceptable Ads initiative.

Earlier this year, Ad Block Plus co-founder Till Faida told Digital Trend's Molly McHugh that "the initiative was not intended to maximize revenues for large companies," but should be seen as part of an effort to influence the entire advertising ecology in a direction that works for both users and advertisers.

”The success of our initiative is dependent on the support of our contributors who believe in our vision to have a positive impact on online advertising,” he told Digital Trends. “Financial interest will never be more important than that. If we lose credibility, users will just disable the Acceptable Ads functionality or look for a different ad blocker. Then our efforts to find a reasonable compromise will have failed, and ad blocking will eventually be destructive for the free Internet.”

That's a noble sentiment, but the practice of charging for participation poses obvious conflict-of-interest issues, and surely changes how some AdBlock Plus users will view the software.

In March, I reported on how Google had banned AdBlock Plus's mobile app from the Google Play store, on the grounds that the app was interfering "with another service or product in an unauthorized manner.” But it seems like Google is playing both sides of the fence. Banning AdBlock Plus from the Google Play store, while at the same time paying AdBlock Plus to make sure ads get through on the browser extension.

In the case of the Google Play ban, I saw AdBlock Plus as defending user preferences against an onslaught of online advertising. But the picture of the company that emerges from the "Acceptable Ads" initiative is entirely different. AdBlock Plus appears to be positioning itself as a gatekeeper at a key bottleneck. That's a potentially lucrative vantage-point, and it's definitely something to watch.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Adblock Plus Advertising Google Online Advertising