Space Ramblings

AdBlock Lawsuits to Come?

Tomorrow’s legal fight may be over Web browser add-ons that let people avoid advertisements. These add-ons are growing in functionality and popularity, which has led legal experts surveyed this week by CNET News.com to speculate about when the first lawsuit will be filed.

If ad-blockers become so common that they slice away at publishers’ revenues, “I absolutely would expect to see litigation in this area,” said John Palfrey, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Uh huh. I’m sure lawyers would love to have litigation in this area but it’s litigation that would swiftly go nowhere. An ad blocker is a general purpose tool. If it blocks ads on a particular website, that is the choice of the user to employ it on that website. A browser can be configured to display data any way you like.

Companies can sue

1. The user – A dead end to put it mildly. Even the RIAA would blanch at the thought of using millions of random web surfers based on IP addresses alone.

2. Mozilla – But Mozilla doesn’t make AdBlock

3. AdBlock – Suing open source software that has a general purpose and doesn’t target any individual site is just nuts, period

The Interactive Advertising Bureau, the lobbying arm for the online ad industry, says it isn’t preparing a legal offensive at this point. Mike Zaneis, the organization’s vice president of public policy, said he wants to work with software developers and consumers to come up with a middle ground on what he describes as an “issue that is just now ripening.”

“We don’t want to go down a route that would seem adversarial at all,” Zaneis said. “People are free to ignore ads, and they often do that, but when you have a third party blocking those ads, that’s the real problem.” He said the IAB is “looking at all the options.”

The options being to

1. Sit there and take it

2. File pointless lawsuits

3. Work to bypass AdBlock

The IAB seems to have enough sense to avoid 2, probably because it’s a young enough organization not to have gotten delusions of grandeur.

Many Web sites prohibit any kind of ad-blocking in their terms of service agreements. MySpace.com prohibits “covering or obscuring the banner advertisements on your personal profile page, or any MySpace.com page via HTML/CSS or any other means.” Six Apart’s LiveJournal uses similar language,

Which refers not to web browsing but to hacking your profile page to block ads. How can CNet post something this stupid? Granted these conditions could be loosely interpreted to mean that if someone views his own profile page with AdBlock he might be technically in violation of the terms of service, but that’s an absurd stretch and meaningless in the larger scale of the debate.

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