While we’re onto clichés how about another one, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. As DLC coaches and Internet Itinerants we are regularly discovering sites and apps that pique our interest. These discoveries can be anything from computer desktop wallpapers of sunny beach scenes to something more practical like an online marks program or even more substantial like Google for Education. Whatever the app, and wherever the source, many of these have at least two things in common – they are free for us to use, and they cost someone else a lot of money to develop and maintain. Granted, there are a few organizations that truly are altruistic and are either supported by someone with lots of extra cash or a good source of donations, but ask anyone who has a unique skill or a pickup truck and they will tell you that there really is no such thing as a free lunch.
I have a cousin who every once in a while will call me up with an offer to take me for lunch. It wasn’t long before I realized that each “free” lunch came with a caveat. There was always a funny noise in one of his vehicles, a problem with a computer, or an electrical problem on his farm that no one else could solve, and this revelation would usually surface at some point during lunch. Rather than jeopardize our developed brotherhood I devised a scheme where I would schedule one of these free lunches to coincide with a reciprocal favour that could only be accomplished with a pickup truck – his pickup truck, since I didn’t have a truck of my own. My point is, if something appears to be free there are often strings attached. In the case of online or free downloadable apps there is just about always a trade-off. If an organization goes to the time and expense of providing a valuable service it’s only natural that they will want something in return. This “something” could be anything from general demographic information with which to improve their software, to ultimately selling you a more advanced version of the service, or they may just want to provide a vehicle for the display of peripheral commercial advertising. The level of intrusion will depend on the provider, but a lot of the apps, systems, and software we use for free is fairly innocuous, apart from the annoyance of the ads. Assuming that a website is legitimate and not after any confidential information, I usually accept the trade-off as a fair and reasonable business transaction. I get something for “free”, and in return I may observe, and sometimes even click on their ads. To me, this is fair.
Several years ago I created a tutorial website that would allow my students to catch up on lessons that they had missed during an absence. These tutorials also allowed students a chance to replay the demos at their own pace. Originally I hosted this site on my free Shaw account, free meaning I was paying for it anyway as part of my Internet service. It wasn’t long before fellow teachers, friends of teachers, and friends of friends of teachers began asking for the password to the site. Traffic was increasing beyond the limitations of my Shaw account, so I had to relocate it to a commercial server, at my expense. Tiring of the financial strain of subsidizing the education system, I eventually I got the idea of selling Google Ads on the site in order to offset the costs. The site has been running smoothly with no out of pocket expenses for the past several years.
A while back I was showing my site to a colleague. I hadn’t looked at the site for several months, but something looked off. I then noticed that my Google Ads were missing. The sole means of support – the financial means with which to provide this service was missing. Ad Blocker was reaching into my pocket and taking away the means with which to provide my tutorial site for “free”. I have been aware of various ad blocking extensions for years. I realize that it can be more comfortable to view websites without annoying ads, but I also know that the ads are there for good reason, and when viewing other people’s websites, I leave them alone. But then, I am the type of person that would never borrow someone’s pickup truck without at least putting gas in it.
If you feel that using ad blocking extensions is your personal decision, you are right – it is, but consider the consequences.
“Viewing ads is part of the deal if users want content to be free. The use of ad blocking software breaks that implicit contract.”
- Mauricio Freitas, publisher of Geekzone website.
There really is no such thing as a free lunch, and these online soup kitchens will not be able to operate without something in return, and one way or another they will get it. Look at the evolution of YouTube videos. YouTube is an advertising company. They are not a benevolent organization. Remove the peripheral ads from YouTube’s web page, and what do you get? Many YouTube videos now have advertisements edited right in to the video. There was a time when all you needed to do was put up with the ad for a few seconds, then click to bypass it, but that feature is gradually disappearing. Now we face the inconvenience of having to sit through the entire duration of the ad, no matter how long it is, before we get to the content.
What are some other side effects of the popularization of ad blockers? Diana Furchtgott-Roth, economist and web columnist says,
"If the ad blocking groups prevail, it will substantially erode the business model for providing online content for free. You'll see a lot of websites disappear."
As much as we might like to think otherwise, the Internet is not just about information. It’s about data collection and marketing. Advertisers and website sponsors are getting tired of “grazers” who give little or nothing back.
How are they responding?
Signing up for services
In addition to sites that are only interested in our demographics, data, family secrets, etc., are “Paywall” sites. A paywall is a system that prevents access to all or part of a site without a paid subscription.
No more free rides
Some formerly free software and applications are scaling back on the free versions, forcing us to pay for the next level. Some free versions are even disappearing altogether in favor of the paid version, after users have developed a dependency on them. It reminds me of the 'Big Three' tobacco companies handing out free cigarettes outside schools in third world countries.
A closer look at Ad Blockers
Ad blocker extensions or applications themselves can have hidden agendas, which may include data collection, or even re-directing web searches, where web searches are hi-jacked and re-routed through a search engine under the ad blockers control. Ad blockers can also collect user data.
A New Generation of Ads
Some popular websites that rely heavily on advertising revenue are counter-striking with software that will limit or prevent the display of content if the viewer is using an ad blocker. As more and more viewers use ad blocking technology, you will see more websites limiting their content, or wanting to sell it to you. Much like virus writers and anti-virus software, this will become a “cat and mouse” game with each group trying to stay one step ahead of the other, with ad blocker providers fighting advertisers. Unfortunately it is ultimately the viewers who will be paying for this battle.
Other sites are moving toward the use of native ads. These are ads that blend in with the content, and don’t have the tell-tale code associated with Google or other brands of advertisements that allow ad blockers to recognize them. Unfortunately this also makes it difficult for viewers to differentiate between content and advertising, or fact versus opinion. As teachers we already struggle with getting students to determine credibility on the Internet. When ads go into stealth mode this will be even more difficult, and our job will be more challenging.
VCR’s and PVR’s, which allow viewers to fast forward or even remove television commercials, have forced the evolution of this very large industry through such things as product placement and pay per view. Advertising is a big industry, and the online version is evolving as well. If you are in the habit of using ad blockers your free ride is coming to an end. Smaller websites that rely on the revenue of peripheral ads may give up and disappear. Larger ones will fight back – and win!
One way or another you will end up paying for lunch.