By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Jumpy, blinking Internet ads really bug "Rick752."
But he doesn't merely avert his gaze.
A machinist and self-described "blue-collar guy" in his mid-50s from upstate New York, Rick752, as he's known online, spends most nights upstairs in his den assembling a list of Internet ad sites and related data. That work, dubbed EasyList, enables millions of Web surfers to filter and freeze out nearly all advertising that would otherwise appear on their screens.
Yet the effort to block millions of Internet ads, while drawing raves from users, is feared by some who say that if it continues to grow in popularity, it could threaten the financial underpinnings of much of the Web, where publishers are largely dependent on advertising. Rick, who said he receives no money for his work, agreed to talk only if his full name was withheld.
"I'm playing against some pretty big players," he said, explaining his reluctance to step forward. "I don't want to be harassed. . . . I don't want to be bribed.
"I started it because I was frustrated with getting my computer infected from ads -- malware and spyware and all that stuff," he said. "I kind of went overboard with it. But you have to admit, it's pretty amazing, right?"
Indeed, EasyList and the free Adblock Plus software it works with may be the most popular and most effective of all the ad blocking systems on the Web. Using EasyList, which is also free, Adblock Plus screens out not just pop-ups, but virtually every other Internet ad form, including in-page display and video, based on Rick's list.
Its success, however, has put Rick in the middle of a fierce debate over ad blockers and what role they could have on the development of the Web.
Fans of EasyList and Adblock Plus see them as wonderful tools for uncluttering Web pages filled with distracting ads.
But some Web site owners argue that the blockers could have a devastating effect on the availability of content on the Web: Cutting the number of times ads appear reduces a publisher's advertising revenue.
Just imagine, they argue, what television programs would be available if there were no commercials to fund their production.
For now, ad blockers are used by a small percentage of Web surfers, and "we are nowhere near that doomsday scenario," said Mike Zaneis, vice president of public policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry group.
But if the tools' use becomes universal, he said, "it could eliminate most of the money that supports online services and content."
Moreover, the idea that a guy working in his den at night while his wife watches TV downstairs can so easily allow people to block most ads reminds some of how fragile Web profits may be. The global Internet advertising industry is estimated to bring in more than $40 billion annually.
The biggest Web companies -- Google and Yahoo -- declined to comment on the blockers' use.
Meanwhile, Web sites big and small have tried to grapple with the phenomenon -- mostly without success.
For example, Daily Kos, one of the leading political blogs, virtually pleads with people using blockers to recognize that advertising money is required to keep the site running.
"If you use ad-blocking software while viewing Daily Kos, you're getting all the benefits of our site but we're not getting any of the advertisement revenue associated with your visits," it informs visitors if it has detected they are using ad-blocking software. It urges people using ad blockers to pay for a subscription to the site even though the site is normally free.
The pro-wrestling site PWInsider.com, which claims 4 million to 10 million page views per month, sometimes attempts to block people using ad blocking software from accessing the site.
"We are three guys who have no corporate backing and need the revenue that our best-paying ads generate," said Dave Scherer, owner of the site. "We don't believe it's unreasonable to earn a living from something that we put 50- to 70-hour workweeks into. . . . For every ad that doesn't load, we don't earn the needed revenue we need to generate revenue to pay our mortgages, bills, etc."
It's not just in the United States, either.
The French Web site Virusphoto.com has told visitors using Adblock Plus to "Merci de désactiver l'extension Adblock de votre navigateur," or "Please deactivate Adblock from your browser."
It explains: "Si tous les internautes bloquaient les publicités, l'internet gratuit n'existerait pas," or "If all surfers were to block ads, the free Internet would no longer exist."
There are dozens of ad-blocking programs, and many of them can be downloaded free.
But few are as popular or as effective as EasyList with Adblock Plus, both of which are available through Mozilla, a nonprofit organization that puts out the increasingly popular Firefox browser and other free software.
Wladimir Palant, a software developer from Cologne, Germany, put Adblock Plus together. Like Rick, he said he has received no money for his efforts.
The program has been downloaded more than 20 million times, according to Mozilla statistics, and Palant said there are about 4 million active daily users, most of them using the program with the EasyList filter.
"Rick's list is the top recommendation exactly because he has built such a big community around himself," Palant said.
Rick relies on about a dozen people who keep tabs on new ads and new efforts by Web sites to foil his list.
The essence of Rick's work is putting together a list of Web addresses for advertisements. Adblock Plus then uses the list to stop ads from appearing on a user's screen.
The trick to his work comes when some advertisers try to goof up his system. Then a kind of clandestine geek vs. geek warfare erupts between Rick and the Web sites.
For example, some companies disguise their content -- the stuff people want to see -- as ads. That makes the ad blocker block the content.
This has happened repeatedly, and on some of the biggest Web sites in the nation. To fix that, Rick sometimes resorts to individually "whitelisting" or approving, content addresses while continuing to block the ad addresses.
Last week, he was working on how to handle video ads on Hulu.com, a partnership of NBC and Fox that shows new and old TV and movies.
Adblock Plus and Rick's list blocked the video ads that run before the clips.
But the site sensed the ad blockers and put up a static message: "This program is brought to you by Hulu's advertising partners. . . . If you see this message repeatedly, you may need to disable your ad blocking software."
The message lingers on the screen as long as the ad would have run.
"There's nothing we can do about that -- yet," Rick said.
Responding to the complaints that they are hurting people who put content on the Web -- while expecting to get paid in advertising -- Palant and Rick are adamant.
"People accuse me of destroying the Internet," Palant said.
The two suggested that the advertisers and publishers deserve ad blockers because they have imposed so many annoying ads on users.
The existence of such programs, they said, will have a deterrent effect, forcing advertisers to use less annoying tactics for fear of driving more people to use blockers.
People use this software not simply because "they don't want publishers to make money," Rick said. "It's because they are so annoyed."
"People hate ads," he said. "They really hate ads. We wouldn't be doing this otherwise."