A bunch of big US websites say they’re likely to support legal action against ad blockers

It looks like US website owners are prepared to take ad blockers to court. Shutterstock

A number of “high traffic” websites in the US say they are likely to support legal action to ward of the threat of ad blockers, according to a new report.

Research firm Medianomics carried out a survey of 42 websites and multi-site networks which represent an aggregate 2.2 billion visits per month — ranging from sites with 6 million to 10 million visitors, to those attracting 450 million monthly visitors — to assess which tactics they are likely to use in order to address the impact of ad blockers.

Of the strategies the respondents were most-likely to test next, supporting collective legal action came out top.

None of the respondents had already tried taking ad blocking companies to court, but 48% of those surveyed said they were “somewhat likely” and 36% said they were “definitely/very likely” to test such a solution.

While a survey of 42 publishers (the names of which were undisclosed in the report) is not necessarily representative of the entire online media industry in the US, it is nonetheless interesting to see that at least some publishers are willing to go nuclear on the ad blocking companies they fear are steadily squeezing their revenues. Ad blockers are now used by 10% of US desktop users, according to a report published by comScore earlier this month, underlining the threat to online businesses that rely heavily on advertising.

It’s surprising too because publishers elsewhere haven’t been successful in winning their court battles with ad blockers in the past

In Germany, Adblock Plus parent company Eyeo has been taken to court five times — most recently by newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, and also by Business Insider owner Axel Springer, RTL Interactive, ProSieben/Sat1, and Zeit/Handelsblatt. The judge has ruled in Eyeo’s favour on each occasion.

Eyeo spokesman Ben Williams told Business Insider: “We will treat any potential legal challenges just like we have the actual ones in Germany, where we have won every case thus far. Things like blocking ads and protecting privacy are fundamental rights users possess whenever they navigate the internet, and we will continue to defend these rights should they be challenged.”

The other tactics being deployed

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Preparing to take legal action is not the stance of all executives at big US online publishing businesses. Indeed, many responding to that survey may simply have been implying they’d add their name to a class action brought about by another organisation or trade body, rather than actively planning to do anything about it themselves.

Raju Narisetti, News Corp senior vice president of strategy (who was not a participant in the Medianomics survey,) told Business Insider: “I am personally unclear how legal action against ad blocker companies will let publishers address the real reason why they are becoming popular with audiences. Winning in the court of public opinion is always a better long-term strategy than trying to just win in a court.”

News Corp is a holding company, operating several news brands across four continents — such as The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London, and The New York Post — so the strategy for each title is different.

Narisetti explained for News Corp, the first imperative is for its individual brands to understand how much of their online audience has ad blockers switched on. “That remains an urgent, work-in-progress,” he said.

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Publishers are using several tactics to beat the blockers. USA Today Sports/Reuters Pictures

Next, the company is addressing the “fatness” and “slowness” of its sites to ensure the reader experience is faster. Narisetti said it’s also critical to ensure its audience understands “how the great journalism they come to us for is paid for, mostly and often through ads.” What the publications do next to communicate and deal with visitors, readers, subscribers, and members differs for each individual brand.

News Corp’s approach appears to align with the tactics the publishers in Medianomic’s survey said they were planning to deploy.

Limiting the number of ads and tracking scripts to reduce page size and load time was the most popular tactic publishers have either tested already (26%) or look likely to test (60%.)

Some 40% of publishers surveyed also said they had begun replacing display ads with native ads are sponsored content, which are less likely to be blocked by ad blocking software.

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A National Geographic story viewed on Facebook Instant Articles. Facebook

There was also a lot of interest in using distribution partners such as Facebook Instant Articles or Apple News to monetise content (57% likely to try, 12% had already tried.)

Publishers also expressed interest in using technology to circumvent the ad blockers — with 17% saying they had already deployed such software. A small percentage (5%) said they had experimented with blocking users from viewing their content if they had an ad blocker switched on — a plan that has been tested by big US websites such as Wired and Forbes.

Of the tactics publishers were least likely to want to try, half (50%) said they were not interested in joining Adblock Plus’ “Acceptable Ads” whitelist, where websites over a certain size are asked to pay Eyeo a percentage of the revenue earned from the unblocked ads.

Meanwhile, 10% of respondents said while they’re following the topic of ad blocking, they’re not doing anything more about it at the moment.

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