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Money & Ethics

Is It Fair for Websites to Lock Out Users of Ad Blockers?

Web users must understand: There is no such thing as a free lunch.

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Q. When I visited one of my favorite news websites yesterday, I got a message I had never seen before. I was told that I have a choice of turning off the ad blocker I put on my browser or paying to be a subscriber to the site. I don’t want to do either. Do you think their tactic is ethical?

See Also: Knight Kiplinger's Money & Ethics Quiz

A. Let me turn the tables on you: Is it ethical of you to consume valuable information for which you are paying nothing—not a subscription fee or a pay-per-article charge—while also refusing to see the ads that currently support the editorial cost of the website?

Some Web users have turned to ad blockers because of their understandable distaste for annoying, obtrusive ads, such as animated cartoons and ads that take over your whole screen. But the most-reputable websites, respectful of their visitors’ user ex­perience, don’t allow these kinds of ads. The ads on their sites are as easy to ignore (if you wish) as print ads in newspapers and magazines, and obviously much less obtrusive than TV and radio ads.

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Although an increasing number of news websites are charging frequent visitors a subscription fee (whether or not the visitor is using an ad blocker) most websites remain free to visitors, relying entirely on ad revenue to pay their costs of operation.

But if the use of ad-blocking software—which a website and its advertisers can detect—keeps increasing, marketers will see the effectiveness of their ads diminish and will reduce their online spending. Web publishers will have no choice but to impose user fees on visitors who use ad blockers—or maybe on all visitors. The oldest law of economics is relevant here: There is no such thing as a free lunch.