Last week, I criticized chintzy people who don't tip at least 15% in a sit-down restaurant. In a second post I pointed out that shopping in a brick-and-mortar store when you fully intend to purchase online is unfair and wrong.

Those are both examples of behavior that's legal but (in my view) unethical and unkind. They are behaviors that you have the right to do, but are not the right thing to do.

Today I'm writing about another perfectly legal behavior which, in my view, is mean-spirited and unethical: the use of ad blockers to view content from pages that originally appeared with ads on them.

Needless to say, I'm expressing my own personal opinion here, not that of Inc.com, its advertisers or anybody associated with either. So if you want to get mad at somebody, get mad at me, not them.

The way I see it, the content was posted with ads, which are how the content providers (authors, editors, publishers) get paid. Because ad blockers reduce the value of those ads (because few people see them), by blocking ads you're making it harder for those people to make a living.

Put another way, online ads are the "price" you should be paying for reading that content. Subverting the display of the ads is getting something of value (the content) without paying for it (seeing the ad), which is a textbook case of unethical behavior.

Unless the display of the content sans ads is specifically at the permission of the copyright holder, blocking ads--or reading the ads on an app that strips them off--is also disrespectful to the writer, the editor and the original publisher. It's mean-spirited.

I'm not questioning anyone's right to do this. I'm saying that it's the wrong thing to do. It's unethical, not in "investment banks defrauding grandmothers" way, but in a petty way, like undertipping or using a retail store as a showroom for your online shopping.

I can anticipate the comments that are likely to pop up as the result of this post, so I'll save everyone some trouble and answer the most obvious:

  • "Online ads are obnoxious and obtrusive." This is sometimes true. However, the display of those ads is how the content owners chose to make that content available. If you find that "price" too high, read something else.
  • "I would ignore the ads anyway." Certainly you are free to ignore the ads, but reading the content without viewing the ads is getting something of value without paying for it.
  • "I won't read the content if I must also view the ads." Fair enough. Don't read the content. Ethical dilemma solved.
  • "Ad blockers are like skipping over commercials in broadcast television." Exactly so! While entirely 100% legal, skipping over commercials in recorded broadcast television is also unethical in the sense that you're getting something of value without paying for it.
  • "I'm never going to click on an ad anyway." You don't know that for certain. The advertisers have paid the content owners for a chance to convince you to click on their ad. Whether you click on the ads is, of course, your own business.
  • "It's not illegal so it's not unethical." There are plenty of legal behaviors that are not ethical. For example, wearing a T-shirt with an obscenity around children in a public forum is legal in most places. However, while it's your right to do that, it's wrong to do that.
  • "Ad blockers are inevitable so therefore they're ethical." I'll answer this with a thought experiment. If transporters like in Star Trek were real, would it be ethical for me to beam into your home and steal all your stuff?
  • "Ads can deposit unwanted viruses." Leaving a virus on somebody's computer is malicious, evil and highly. However, ads displayed by actual content owners (as opposed to pirate sites) almost never contain viruses.
  • "Tracking my web usage invades my privacy." The ability to track content increases the financial value of online ads, allowing content providers to provide more high quality content. I think that sites shouldn't do with without warning.
  • "Advertisers are evil; blocking ads is therefore good." Corporations may do things aren't to your advantage, but that doesn't make them evil. In any case, nobody is forcing you to read their content.
  • "Advertisers build ad blocker use into their business models." True. And retail stores offer products knowing that some percentage of customer will steal them. That doesn't make stealing ethical. It does, however, increase the price for everyone else.
  • "Information wants to be free." I could write an entire blog post on why that statement is stupid. Here's the short version: People own their intellectual property. Taking that property without permission is theft.
  • "I pay for my Internet, why should I have to see ads?" You do not pay for the Internet, you pay for an Internet connection. The content is conveyed across that connection is completely different.

I'm sure other objections will come up. But it would be nice if a few people who use ad blockers have the decency to admit that they rate their convenience

I don't use an ad blocker and believe that people who want to be fair and just should similarly forego the use of an ad blocker. Ad blockers are not illegal nor IMHO should they be made illegal. However, they are unethical.

Published on: Jan 31, 2015
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The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.