I caught part of a radio interview today regarding the ethics and legality of using ad-blockers. One thing the interviewee said was (paraphrasing), “If a user blocks ads for a site that generates revenue from ads, that seems…well, like stealing, or at least cheating. It’s getting something for free that is supposed to be paid for.”

I’ve heard this argument before, some years ago, via my friend Albert (who wasn’t arguing in favor of the idea, merely bringing it up.) In that case, it was a television network executive who was making the legal case. “If you watch our shows, you’re obliged to watch the commercials. Otherwise, you’re stealing.”

This is wrong.

I understand that these (effectively broadcast) mediums are generating revenue from advertising. But I don’t understand how they can say that if I choose not to see their advertizing that I’m stealing. I am not. Let’s assume, for the moment, NBC and McDonald’s.

  1. If I watch all of their commercials, but don’t buy a single advertized product, I am not stealing from NBC or McDonald’s.
  2. There is no contract–none–that I am obliged to watch commercials. NBC and McDonald’s simply hope that I will.
  3. If I (hypothetically) turn off the television, by mistake, at each commercial, I have committed no crime.
  4. Thus, if I intentionally turn off commercials, I also have committed no crime. If there was crime by intent, there would also be a lesser crime by mistake.

Now, I don’t know the law, despite my above pronouncements. But I’ll go a step further. It will be found illegal for a free web site to introduce a page that says “in order to view this site, you must keep ads viewable.” It would be like a radio station saying “If you’re not going to listen to commercials, you aren’t allowed to listen to this station.”

It will also be found illegal for such a site to somehow alter the site’s content through detecting if an ad blocker is used.

The gentleman interviewed said, “If you turn on ad blocking, you’re essentially trying to view a site for free.” This is plain wrong. I am always viewing the site for free. The site and its advertizers have made the error of assuming how many potential customers will see the advertizements. They must not somehow be allowed to force their commercials on citizens. This would not only be an abuse of law, it would be contrary to the very free market ideals that so many companies claim to support.