Adblock Plus, the popular ad blocker that consumers have downloaded in their tens of millions and advertising industry execs love to hate, held the European version of its “Camp David” peace talks in London on Tuesday.
The “Camp David” event — named after the US President’s private country retreat where peace treaties are often hatched between world leaders — followed a November meeting in a Manhattan hotel in November, which saw the ad blocker bring together tech companies, publishers, journalists, non-profits, and academics to discuss the formation of its Acceptable Ads Committee.
Adblock Plus is hoping to form an independent, non-profit committee for its Acceptable Ads program — the whitelist that allows “non-intrusive” advertising past its ad blocker. Big digital advertising companies like Google, Amazon, and Criteo pay Adblock Plus owner Eyeo big fees to get on the list, but the service is free for “90%” of sites. This business model, and the fact that Eyeo is a profit-making company that (at the moment) acts as the judge of what is deemed an acceptable ad or not, is what has drawn the ire from Adblock Plus’ detractors, which includes many people in the advertising and publisher community.
On Tuesday, I was invited to attend the London version of Camp David, held in the depths of The Stafford Hotel’s 380-year-old wine cellars rooms.
The underground passages, with their low ceilings and dusty vintage bottles of wine positioned behind iron bars, served as an appropriate setting for the event. It was held under “Chatham House Rules,” meaning I’m allowed to give a general overview of the topics discussed, but cannot attribute quotes to any individuals, nor identify who was in the room. I was invited not necessarily to report on the event, but to listen and share my views on the Acceptable Ads Committee proposal, in my capacity as a “content creator” (although it’s far to say I did a lot more listening than discussing.)
The 25 or so guests from a variety of countries across Europe included fellow journalists, execs from publishers, advertising industry trade bodies, execs from ad tech companies, and privacy and consumer advocates. Adblock Plus had four members of staff sat around the table, including CEO Till Faida (the company gave me permission to mention he was there.)
Notable in their absence were the advertising agencies and advertisers themselves — something that was quickly brought up in the discussion. If the Acceptable Ads Committee is to be truly representative, it must include all the members of the online advertising chain — and the people who create the ads should probably be involved in these conversations too.
What was discussed: The Adblock Plus business model and the need for evidence Acceptable Ads actually works
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the main topic that kept reverberating around the dinner table was the Adblock Plus business model. Adblock Plus receives a fee from large advertising companies — defined as those that gain more than 10 million additional ad impressions every month after they participate in the Acceptable Ads initiative. The fee represents 30% of the additional revenue they generated after the ads were unblocked.
The business model has been compared to everything from a kind of tax, to extortion, to blackmail, to a “Mafia-like advertising network.” Randhall Rothenberg, the chief executive of US internet advertising trade body the IAB, said in a speech earlier this month that Adblock Plus was an “unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of tech wannabes” and an “old-fashioned extortion racket.” Some of those types of descriptions were repeated on Tuesday.
Several participants around the table demanded more transparency about the business model and which companies take part in the scheme. In its defence, Adblock Plus published a page on its website in December detailing how and why it is financed. But it seems the advertiser and publisher community still feel uneasy about the model, and are not immediately ready to invest time and resource into signing up to a scheme invented by a for-profit company that is in the business of blocking their revenues.
Meanwhile, others questioned whether Adblock Plus’ definition of an acceptable ad — which mostly focuses on the placement, labelling, and size of ads relative to a web page — is broad enough because it focuses only on form and not other factors like content, context, or things like ad tracking. These are the types of issue Adblock Plus hopes the independent committee will take into account when it is formed.
Where most in the room did agree is that ad blocking is not going away. No matter which data you look at, ad blocker usage is a growing global trend.
While some were fearful of the impact of software like Adblock Plus on their businesses, most people sat at the table simply required more quantifiable data that moving to Acceptable Ads — with its fees and subjectivity — can actually benefit an advertising company or a publisher, rather than simply acting as a short-term sticking plaster to counter the immediate impact of ad blocking. How do ad blocker users react when they notice they are being served ads? Are they more likely to click on them? Do Acceptable Ads actually benefit a publisher or advertising company’s bottom line? The answers to those questions don’t feel immediately obvious right now.
Overall the discussion felt more like a tentative meet and greet than one that made any considerable process toward setting up an independent committee that will be charged with deciding the criteria behind what makes an acceptable ad. But the fact that the meeting was rarely combative will likely be viewed as a productive step for all parties involved — it looks as though most people in the room would rather tackle the issue with negotiations about what is right for the user, rather than with technological warfare.
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