Consumer Rights Getting in the Way of Advertising

When I first heard of this case, I was excited. Some of the largest publishing companies in the world, including those of the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, rallied together, leveraging their power to end one of the most egregious forms of pop-up advertising on the Internet. Specifically, they are targeting a company named Gator, which installs software on consumers PCs, often without their knowledge, and displays an incessant stream of pop-up ads.

By way of explanation, pop-up ads, those annoying windows which get thrown up in front of, to the side of, and behind the web pages you are trying to read, sometimes have nothing to do with the web site being viewed. They are launched by third parties which have managed to sneak software onto some unsuspecting consumer's computer. The law suit would seek to end such schemes.

The publishers' motives are, obviously, self serving. First, many major web sites have been flooded with complaints about aggressive advertising. In the case of Gator ads, the web site has no control over such things, including the content of the ad, which may be inappropriate for their audience. This lead the search engine Google (which lists Gator under the heading "Society > Issues > Business > Allegedly Unethical Firms") to publish pages on its site denying the use of pop-up ads.

Second, the publishers argue that the pop-up ads prevent the consumer from seeing the publishers' own in-line ads, which help fund the web site and its content. Perhaps it is just the pessimist in me, but I think the latter of these reasons is really the motivating factor. Dropping click through rates, the number of times consumers click on ads, has no doubt led to decreased revenues from advertisements, which in turn led to this law suit.

As I said, when I first heard of the law suit, I was ecstatic. Someone with the money and resources of a small nation was going after the companies responsible for some of the most annoying advertising of all time. Whatever their reasons, I thought, more power to them.

Unfortunately, however, it seems I may have to revise my stance on the matter. It appears that these companies may be setting a precedent that will allow them to go after consumers. As this article notes, the lawyers for the publishers think that Internet users who use special software to block pop-up ads or turn off the displaying of images in their browser to speed up their Internet experience are engaged in "copyright infringement because they are interfering with Web publishers' exclusive right to control how their pages are displayed."

This hearkens back to the ongoing lawsuits between the television industry and the makers of Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) which allow consumers to remove the commercials from television broadcasts. In articles on those issues, I noted that it seemed apparent to all but the television industry that one of the first uses of any new technology is to eliminate advertising. Cable television itself was billed as "TV without the ads" when it first came out. Even the movie industry proved it could live without ads when it released DVD. Very few contained DVD rentals contained previews and trailers as incentive to switch from VCR tapes.

The Internet, too, was more or less ad free for the first 25 years of its existance. In fact, in every instance I can think of, once advertisers had gotten a hold of a technology, a new technology sprang up to address the issue, to eliminate the advertisements. It was this way with TV and movies; it is this way with pop-up ads on the web; and it is this way with e-mail and the insurgence of spam.

Consumers have proved over and over again that they have a very low tolerance to ads. One would think that the publishing industry, an industry which doesn't have to mine or build its product, which creates its products using little but human talent, could come up with another way of making money than coming after consumers, which I do believe is its ultimate goal.

Or maybe I'm just getting discouraged. I don't know, but I find myself wondering how long it will be until I can't walk into a movie late because I will have skipped the popcorn ads, prime time TV spots, and movie trailers which preceded each movie nowadays. This seemed far off such a short time ago, but when the head of Turner Broadcasting Systems went so far as to suggest that going to the bathroom during a commercial was a copyright violation, it got a little to close for comfort.

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