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UK government launches initiative against online adblocking, compares it to piracy

With the rise of users employing adblocking technology in the last 18 months, the conflict between online publishers and users has been mostly left as a problem for the market to resolve organically. However today the UK’s culture secretary John Whittingdale has announced that the British government intends to ‘do something’ on the issue, describing the practice as a ‘modern day protection racket’, and comparing it to piracy.

Whittingdale, speaking at the Oxford Media Convention, is rounding more on companies such as Adblock Plus, which charge up to 30% of revenue in order to ‘whitelist’ advertisers, than on the users who are employing browser plugins to remove networked ads.

Whittingdale described the increasing tendency towards adblocking as an “existential threat”, and promised to set up a round-table between social media groups, online publishers and adblocking companies in order to discuss the ‘problem’.

Whittingdale said: “Quite simply – if people don’t pay in some way for content, then that content will eventually no longer exist… And that’s as true for the latest piece of journalism as it is for the new album from Muse.”

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Whittingdale expressed his preference for the industry to self-regulate (which it has vowed to do, despite criticism that the change of heart has come too late), but noted that the UK government “stands ready to help in any way we can”.

As with so much in the digital arena, the locus of contention is in Germany, the home of Adblock Plus, and the one country which has explicitly ruled adblocking to be a legal practice.

The discontent behind the issue is beginning to become institutional, if not actually industrial, and not only as regards startups looking to capitalise on the Adblock Plus ‘Pay to be seen’ model.

Anti-adblocking technologies are emerging as a discrete technology sector. Wired recently moved to a model which blocks adblocking viewers unless they subscribe for a dollar a week, whilst Axel Springer SE, one of Germany’s largest online publishers, launched a similar initiative last October. Last month the president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), Randall Rothenburg, described adblocking companies as a freedom-hating ‘Mafia’.

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