Friday, August 11, 2017

Time to sink the Admiral (or, why using the DMCA to block adblockers is a bad move)

One of the testing steps I have to do, but don't enjoy, is running TenFourFox "naked" (without my typical adblock add-ons) to get an assessment of how it functions drinking from the toxic firehose that is the typical modern ad network. (TL;DR: Power Macs run modern Web ads pretty poorly. But, as long as it doesn't crash.) Now to be sure, as far as I'm concerned sites gets to monetize their pages however they choose. Heck, there's ads on this blog, provided through Google AdSense, so that I can continue to not run a tip jar. The implicit social contract is that they can stick it behind a paywall or run ads beside them and it's up to me/you to decide whether we're going to put up with that and read the content. If we read it, we should pony up in either eyeballs or dinero.

This, of course, assumes that the ads we get served are reasonable and in a reasonable quantity. However, it's pretty hard to make money simply off per-click ads and networks with low CPM, so many sites run a quantity widely referred to as a "metric a$$ton" and the ads they run are not particularly selective. If those ads end up being fat or heavy or run scripts and drag the browser down, they consider that the cost of doing business. If, more sinisterly, they end up spying on or fingerprinting you, or worse, try to host malware and other malicious content, well, it's not their problem because it's not their ad (but don't block them all the same).

What the solution to this problem is not, is begging us to whitelist them because they're a good site. If you're not terribly discriminating about what ads you burden your viewers with, then how good can your site really be? The other non-solution is to offer effectively the Hobson's choice of "ads or paywall." What, the solution to the ads you don't curate is to give you my credit card number so you can be equally as careful with that?

So until this situation changes and sites get a little smarter about how they do sponsorship (let me call out a positive example: The Onion's sponsored content [slightly NSFW related article]), I don't have a moral problem with adblocking because really that's the only way to equalize the power dynamic. Block the ads on this blog if you want; I don't care. Click on them or not, your choice. In fact, for the Power Macs TenFourFox targets, I find an adblocker just about essential and my hats are off to those saints of the church who don't run one. Lots of current sites are molasses in January on barbituates without it and I can only improve this problem to a certain degree. Heck, they drag on my i7 MacBook Air. What chance does my iMac G4 have?

That's why this egregious abuse of statute is particularly pernicious: a company called Admiral, which operates an anti-adblocker, managed to use a DMCA request to Github to get the address of the site hosting their beacon image (to determine if you're blocking them or not) removed from the EasyList adblock listing. They've admitted it, too.

The legal theory, as I understand it (don't ask me to defend it), is that adblockers allow users to circumvent measures designed to "control access," which is a specific component of the American DMCA. (It is not, in fact, the case in Europe.) It might be more accurate to say that the components of adblockers that block adblocker blocking are primarily what they object to. (Uh, yo dawg.) Since the volunteer maintainers of EasyList are the weak link and the list they maintain is the one most adblockers use as a base, this single action gets them unblocked by most adblock extensions and potentially gives other ad networks a fairly big club to force compliance to boot.

The problem with this view, and it is certainly not universally shared, is that given that adblockers work by preventing certain components of the page from loading, theoretically anything that does not load the website completely as designed is therefore in violation. The famous text browser Lynx, for example, does not display images or run JavaScript, and since most ads and adblocker-blockers are implemented with images and JavaScript, it is now revealed as a sinister tool of the godless communist horde. NoScript blocks JavaScript on sites you select, and for the same reasons will cause the end of the American Republic. Intentionally unplugging your network cable at the exact moment when the site is pushing you a minified blob of JS crap -- or the more technically adept action of blackholing that address in your hosts file or on your router -- prevents the site from loading code to function in the obnoxious manner the ad network wants it to, and as a result is clearly treason. Notice that in all these examples the actual code of the site is not modified, just whether the client will process (or in the last example even just receive) and display it. Are all these examples "circumvention"?

This situation cannot stand and it's time for us independent browser maintainers to fight fire with fire. If Admiral isn't willing to back down, I'll issue the ultimatum that I will write code into TenFourFox to treat any of Admiral's web properties as malicious, and I encourage other browser maintainers to do the same. We already use Safe Browsing to block sites that try to load malicious code and we already generate warnings for sites with iffy credentials or bad certificates, so it's not a stretch to say that a site that actively attacks user choice is similarly harmful. The block will only be by default and a user that really wants to can turn it off, but the point will be made. I challenge Admiral to step up their game and start picking on people their own size if they really believe this is the best course of action.

And hey, even if this doesn't work, I should get lots of ad clicks from this, right? Right?

I'll get my coat.

1 comment:

  1. In other words, add the following to personal filter:


    and that should restore the block that was lost by the DMCA take down.


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