Why AdBlock Is "Un-Blocking" Amnesty Banners Today

by Gabriel Cubbage, CEO of AdBlock

If you’re an AdBlock user, you may have been surprised today to see banners linked to articles written for Amnesty International by prominent privacy and free speech advocates like Edward Snowden, Ai Wei Wei, and others, instead of the peaceful, blank spaces you’re accustomed to not noticing.

That’s because today, March 12, is World Day Against Cyber Censorship. For just 24 hours, AdBlock is replacing many of the banners we would normally remove.

Right now, there are billions of people whose access to internet content is restricted and monitored by their own governments. On their current list of “Enemies of the Internet”, Reporters Without Borders include China, the United States, North Korea, the United Kingdom, and many others.

Remarkably, there are people in the advertising world who would love to convince you that blocking ads is not only censorship, but an attack on diversity. But how is it censorship for an individual person to install an ad blocker (or just download a simple text file) because they don't want to see another banner ad promising “One Weird Trick To Lose 60 Pounds in 3 Days”?

But I didn't allow Amnesty's banners through today just to ask you that.

Last November, Edward Snowden told The Intercept “Everybody should be running adblock software, if only from a safety perspective.” He mentioned “safety” because in addition to blocking ads, ad blockers can also protect you from malicious or insecure scripts that internet service providers or others may insert into the websites you visit. So as the internet has evolved, ad blocking has become a mandatory digital prophylactic against a suite of invisible threats to your online privacy.

Every day, hundreds of millions of people use ad blockers to subtract a staggeringly large amount of unwanted content from their Web browsing experience. They used to do it because ads were just annoying. Now they do it to save money on bandwidth, drastically speed up website performance, protect themselves from invisible tracking, and combat an emerging class of highly sophisticated “ad tech” players… which have been automatically labeled the hottest thing going, since the rising popularity of tools that empower users to opt out of unwanted promotional content clearly signals the beginning of the Apocalypse.

We can see the need for strong protections for digital privacy in the news here in the US. In its investigation into the San Bernardino terrorist attack that occurred last December, the FBI recently ordered Apple to weaken security on all iPhones, including yours. Apple’s counter-argument? That forcing them to officially sign off on a piece of software they don’t want to make, specifically intended to make the iPhone less secure, amounts to forcing “speech against their will”, an injustice so rare and draconian, it’s almost without precedent.

Regardless of whether Apple’s case is dismissed, warrantless electronic surveillance, both foreign and domestic, remains far from dead. For American citizens, it’s increasingly apparent that neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights can protect us from government abuse of technology. And no matter where you're from, there’s no guarantee that either technology or legislation can protect you from your own government.

A possible benefit to this very high-profile and high-stakes case is that ordinary citizens are being pulled into the debate, being forced to consider what their privacy is worth. We welcome this development, even though most of our users barely notice our presence on a day-to-day basis (and that’s by design!). We’re showing you Amnesty banners, just for today, because we believe users should be part of the conversation about online privacy. Tomorrow, those spaces will be vacant again. But take a moment to consider that in an increasingly information-driven world, when your right to digital privacy is threatened, so is your right to free expression. When the means of personal expression is also the attack vector for prosecution, censorship becomes the de facto reality. And if you're in the business of filtering digital content, then like it or not, you're also in the free speech business. At AdBlock, we’re trying to learn how to come to terms with that, and we’d love it if you’d weigh in, too.

What used to be a niche tool for nerds is now re-shaping the Web and challenging long-standing business models. But while it’s true that using an ad blocker can greatly enhance your privacy, that’s a role we inherited mostly by accident, not by innovation. The least we can do in our adolescence as an industry is be openly self-conscious about that, and invite users to join the debate we've been having with advertisers and websites for years: What should ad blockers be when they grow up?

I’d argue that we as web citizens can all do better. What if instead of merely blocking ads, you could see content that was relevant and enjoyable to you? What if you could support the content you like to see on the Web without having to give up your privacy? We’d like to move in that direction. Blocking ads is both easy and ethical, and it’s up to you to decide which ones to let through, if any. And it’s up to the advertisers, websites, and yes, maybe even the ad blocking industry itself to earn back your trust with ads and content that you actually might want to see.

And maybe we’ll pull that off. But regardless of how Web content gets paid for, no one except you has the right to control what shows up on your screen, or who has access to the contents of your hard drive. Not the websites, not the advertisers, not the ad blockers. And not your government, either.