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Facebook’s War on Ad Blockers Isn’t Over Yet

Both sides keep one-upping each other in this arms race.

by Nathaniel Mott
Aug 12 2016, 7:11pm

Image: Franco Bouly/Flickr

Is the fight between Facebook and Adblock Plus a game of cat-and-mouse, or is it a much more serious debate about the control people have over the experiences they have on the internet?

Ever since Facebook announced its plans to bypass ad blockers on Tuesday, both sides have been caught in a terse arms race to see who can outsmart the other. Adblock Plus gained the upper hand on Wednesday, then Facebook found another workaround, and in the days since both sides have managed to either block ads on Facebook's site or make sure they're shown.

Facebook said at the time that it wasn't motivated by financial concerns. Instead, it had decided to circumvent ad blockers to show other advertising-dependent businesses that it was possible to do so, thereby allowing the company to help do something about the ad blocking threat. And it wanted to do so while giving its users more control over the advertisements shown to them.

"This isn't motivated by inventory; it's not an opportunity for Facebook from that perspective," Facebook's vice president of engineering for advertising and pages, Andrew Bosworth, told the Wall Street Journal. "We're doing it more for the principle of the thing. We want to help lead the discussion on this." (Still, any rise in Facebook's ad revenues would probably be welcome.)

Eyeo, the company behind Adblock Plus, claimed that the move was simply anti-choice. Its open source community has frantically updated the filter lists that determine what ads the popular Adblock Plus extensions prevent from loading, and the company itself has reiterated its stance that forcing people to view advertisements even if they use an ad blocker is wrong.

"We clearly feel like giving users control of their internet experience is better than taking it away, and it's disheartening that a company like Facebook would abuse everyone's experience of their site by forcing that experience into a one-size-fits-all, see-the-ads-or-else tube," writes Eyeo comms manager Ben Williams. "The internet just doesn't work that way. At least it shouldn't. In the meantime we'll do what we can to keep users in control in the apparently endless loop."

While both sides claim the moral high ground, they both also have financial interests here. Facebook depends on advertising, and even though it's not in any real danger unless many more of its billion-plus users start to use ad blockers, it still wants to make as much money as it can. Eyeo depends on its ability to block ads; if it can't, its whole reason to exist disappears.

This is a financial dispute that happens to involve millions of people — 198 million as of August 2015, according to one report — as well as the world's most popular social network and a huge ad blocker. The basic question on most people's minds, which is whether or not they'll be able to block ads on Facebook, won't have an answer for good until that dispute is finally resolved.