Why ad-blockers, ad-skippers and other user-control technologies are legal

EFF's Fred von Lohmann explains with a great deal of clarity and precision why MediaFire is out of its mind to send legal threats over a Firefox plugin, SkipScreen, that auto-clicks through its ad-screens. It comes down to this: your browser is your browser, and you can auto-click, rewrite, block, display or manipulate what shows up on your screen as much as you like and it's no one's business but your own.

Yes, Boing Boing is ad-supported and yes, SkipScreen is an ad-blocker. So what? We're not dumb enough to think that just because we've decided to earn our living from ads means that you have to give up your rights to control what's on your screen. That's what principle is: what you believe in even when it's not convenient.

MediaFire's arguments to the contrary are entirely misguided. First, they suggest that SkipScreen somehow lets users "steal bandwidth." That's wrong on the facts: SkipScreen just automates the exact process that the user would otherwise have to do themselves in order download a file. No "extra downloads," no additional bandwidth for MediaFire. Second, MediaFire argues that the use of SkipScreen violates MediaFire's "acceptable use policy." That's wrong on the law: users who follow a link to a MediaFire download never click-through or otherwise agree to any "acceptable use policy," so there's no contract here that prohibits a user from using whatever browser she likes (including whatever plug-ins she likes) to download a file.

Sure, MediaFire probably would prefer that we all sit, transfixed, while they display ads for us, just like certain Hollywood executives wish we would never leave the couch or hit FFWD when commercials run during our favorite TV shows, and certain websites wish they could ban Firefox ad-blockers. Fortunately, there's nothing in the law that says that by simply visiting a website, I give up the right to control my desktop.

It's My Browser, and I'll Auto-Click if I Want To


  1. Awesome news! Forcing users to see advertisements is very similar to DRM; the end user’s wishes are being superseded by the content author. In my mind that’s not acceptable. The end user should always be able to experience the data stream, whatever it may be, in any format they see fit.

    (BTW, are there ads on BoingBoing? Because I’ve never seen them if there are. If there are, sorry.)

  2. I stopped using ad blockers as soon as I installed Click to Flash. Ads don’t bother me nearly as much as Flash, which makes me sad, since apparently BB uses Flash for its ads. Although I might go down the adblock route again the next time I hear about malicious code getting injected via javascript-enabled ads. Some website’s revenue stream is worth a hell of a lot less to me than its ability to root my machine.

  3. Looks like they’ve cleared up the privacy/ad-subsitution issue by making it optional.

    via Downloadsquad.com
    The current version of SkipScreen does not collect user information. Future versions may include a post-download page that shows advertising or search results related to the filename, description or originating blog; that information may be available to the advertising site, and subject to their privacy policy. The providers of search results and advertisements will be clearly visible to the user, and/or noted in this privacy policy.

    Has become this:
    via Mozilla.org
    ..after you download a file from a Skipscreen-compatible site, Skipscreen loads a post-download page that includes an iframe loaded from skipscreen.com. This page is optional and you can turn it on and off in your Skipscreen preferences (Tools > Addons > Extensions > Skipscreen > Preferences > uncheck “ShareScreen”).

  4. I just uninstalled Click2Flash, I found it far more trouble than it was worth. Safari block is great, and can be used to block many types of content.

    1. If you’re using Firefox, you might try installing FlashBlock; I’ve had it for a couple of years now, and it works just fine.

  5. Thanks heaps MediaFire for bringing this useful tool to the attention of a wider audience! I’d never thought much about it, and usually suffered through the pointless timeout clickthoughs of rapidshare et al figuring it just wasn’t worth building something to avoid it. I suffered through them as a penance for frequenting shady sites. :-}

    Now that MediaFire has publicized that a practical workaround DOES exist, I’ve installed it immediately!

  6. Ironically I’d never heard of this plugin before reading the BB story. Installed and running nicely now, though :)

  7. Any commercial entity that thinks annoying their viewers is the path to riches is sadly misguided. Annoyed viewers go out of their way to remove the annoyance.

  8. And it’s precisely because of your logical defense of ad-blocking software that I’ve told AdBlock to ignore all of boingboing.net. I’m happy to view ads if it’ll help support a site I love.*

    *not a paid testimonial. I really am that dorky and idealistic.

  9. I view ads as tip jars. For the sites that I have no intention of tipping I have AdBlock. For the sites I visit daily I turn off Adblock, and if there’s something that I enjoy, I middle-click the mot expensive looking ad so they can get my nickle.

    On my own site I have the smallest possible block of Google text ads tucked away at the bottom so people can return the favor. But it’s more so my readers can feel like they’re helping out than the small trickle of money.

    I learned my lesson about online advertising effectiveness a number of years ago. I ran a site that had substantial ad revenue, roughly 25% of traffic exited via an ad. Why? Only because that site was confused with one that was regularly visited by preteens. After a redesign the CTR was less than 1%. Told me all I needed to know about who clicks on ads and why.

    On my current site over 20% of visitors use ad blockers. Good for them. Heck, I’m one of them!

  10. If I am hoping to find some specific content, and I get an ad instead, I am 0% likely to change my mind and decide I want the ad’s content. I can’t imagine anyone who would not make the same choice. Even little children are not so retarded that they will forget the content they were searching for, and the reasons they wanted that content, and choose to experience ad copy for Subaru or whatever instead.

    Advertisers who think that any push of their ad is worth money are quite dumb.

  11. To show my support and respect I have just disabled my browser’s adblockers on the boingboing.net domain.

  12. I don’t argue with the legality of it all, but just because something is legal, doesn’t make you not a dick.

    The tipjar notion was put forward above, and I’ve been to MANY concerts where the price of admission was to tip. Heck, I did a charity show myself where we sold both tix through the standard ticketbastard and when local news started showing up en masse, I announced ANYONE wanting in could get in for a small ‘donation’.

    Problem is, a donation, for it to be one, has to be voluntary and cannot be forced. I had PLENTY of people that dressed as if they were well to do tell me this very fact as they came in without paying. Ya know what? For the event, I really didn’t care…I wanted to share it with as many people as possible. It was the attitude that was offensive. The whole “I COULD if I wanted to, I have more than enough means, and I find what you are offering to be vastly more valuable than that I would have found elsewhere, but since I don’t have to, I’m not gonna because, well, just because…” attitude to be that of a lower human being.

    Heck, that night, I had people that couldn’t afford to pay who showed up and STILL tried to give money, and when I realized they were struggling with trying to figure out what was appropriate to get in, I told them no…and that I’d find the best seats in the house because I appreciate the effort (I sat a family that looked like they might have been homeless in the gov’t seat as he only stuck around 20 minutes and left…I saw them dancing with folks in the rich seats later as if this world truly stopped caring about the social divide).

    And this is EXACTLY how I see websites. You have the folks that obviously have the means to help keep smaller, independent sites running…they have the fastest internet in the world, they have computers that are not slowed down in the slightest by even the obnoxious abuses of flash. Yet they say Fuck It, I Donna Haves To, So I Won’t and then spit in the faces of those that run the sites.

    Legally, they don’t have to do anything. If I knew someone that was running a pentium class machine and tried to visit my site, I’d tell them by all means use an adblocker on my site. Heck, folks that are great people but can’t afford it, I generally comp them into our ‘premium’ areas of the site where people pay $20 a year to access things like videos and otherwise. Why? Because it is the right thing to do (I don’t do it with everyone, but if they’ve shown a commitment to my site, it is in my best interest to have them around just as much as it is to be a human).

    BTW People don’t understand about ads. Just because you don’t click on them, that doesn’t mean they aren’t working. Done right, they put the idea of the product in your readers mind just as much as a television commercial. Hell, I had an advertiser a few years ago that simply wanted to sponsor an area…and asked that no link to their site be incorporated and can I work on their logo (within reason) to better integrate with my site. Hell yeah. To them, it was the impression it left, not the click through…luckily, I’ve only ever run sites on the eyeballs that see them, and not the clickthrough (heck, I don’t even promise a #, nor tell them one, I say it will run for a month and be one of up to three ads on the site during that time…no more than three total). Even if you don’t click, you have the product in your mind when you want to buy something similar.

    Again, to me, it is spitting in the face of not just the site, but the folks that are actively sponsoring the content, and generally done by those that can afford the price of admission. Morally it is crude, but legally…I think you can do whatever you want.


  13. Using adblock and flashblock is a necessary safety precaution. So many sites and ads are malicious (either to computers or aesthetics) that it is difficult to browse without filters. The ad makers have made it that way.

    However! Boing Boing and my other favourite sites are on my white list. Sites I trust and appreciate get all the ad views they deserve. As another commenter said, turning off adblock is a way of tipping for an appreciated service.

  14. I like it but I wish there was some way to kill with fire, those damn adds that walk around, waft across the page, or expand when ever I look at certain newspaper sites.

  15. Unfortunately, I think MediaFire is one of the better file-transfer sites.

    If I’m running my regular gamut of music blogs (shhh!) I’m always happiest to see MediaFire links because there’s no bizarre capcha (remember Rapidshare’s kitten capcha?) or “you must wait 78 seconds”, they support simultaneous transfers for non-paying freeloaders like me, and their pop-up screen is often something you can opt-out of by clicking a button. Compare that to Megaupload, Badongo, or zShare, etc!

  16. Since installing Snow Leopard I’ve been without my trusty AdBlock (no, I don’t want to run Safari in 32-bit mode). And I remembered why I got it in the first place.

    Ads I don’t have any problems with. What I can’t deal with is TV commercials in my browser window. Imagine trying to read a newspaper while someone sits in from of you and waves their arms a foot from your face: It’s impossible.

    Websites are, by in large, print media. It’s impossible for me to read an article when there’s an imbedded video playing on it. If that wasn’t bad enough, advertisers started repeating those videos and animation, so you were endlessly distracted from the article you wanted to read.

    If internet advertisers stopped putting animation on static web pages, I’d be willing to stop ad-blocking. Until then, I need to be able to concentrate on what I’m reading.

  17. I understand that advertisements are needed for my favorite blog to exist, but can you please not have ads that move the text on your website as i’m (attempting to) read it. I’ve purposely avoided installing ad-block to support companies such as yourself, please don’t force me off the deep end.

  18. Surprise surprise. Just as I’m trying to read boingboing now, the “shine a light” top banner ad causes the content of the entire page to move up ad down in annoying fashion, every time I load a boingboing page that includes it.

    Blocked advertisers get what they deserve.

  19. I don’t mind ads. I mind toxic scripts and memory-heavy flash videos and servers that can’t handle the load and cause my page to freeze up. When did internet advertisers get the idea that the way to advertise was to create the digital version of Gilbert Gottfried screaming at us?

  20. @ Clif Marsiglio

    My apologies if I’ve misinterpreted your post but there seems to be an ongoing presumption that the web can only exist if people watch/experience advertising. In the short term, that may be true but that’s no reason for me have to be puked at by a company when I’m reading other content. The watch ad-for-content exchange is a pernicious, unstable model that should be prevented for the long-term health of everyone (content providers, companies and users).

    Television and radio are finding this out the hard way.

    1. @HBeyle My argument is that if you don’t like it, go elsewhere.

      You do not need to be at any site that you do not want to fulfill the social contract aspect of it. Heck, I tell people all the time that complain about my site they are free to go elsewhere (and sometimes have to help make that choice for them)…they complain about censorship and otherwise, but the point is…no one NEEDS to be there.

      If the site you want to go to is ad-driven / supported, you are being a dick by turning them off. Again, not illegal. It also isn’t illegal to sit outside a neighbor’s home and tell him his wife is one ugly sumnabitch. Mighty uncouth, but not illegal.

      We have social contracts for a reason, you start breaking them just because they don[t agree with your sensability, whats to stop someone else from doing the same…and then you get chaos and nothing working. Might actually be what some people want…then again, they’d be committing the same mistakes that all others have done…making decisions that affect others without asking if they want this too.

  21. Firefox+AdBlock Pro + a Proper HOSTS File = A Safer Surfing experience.

    And to those who WhiteList Sites…
    Remember: Sites can be exploited So that site you whitelist may in fact get taken over.
    DTA/CYA Folks

    And To any Admins:
    jeffyablon’s Post contains A Signature / Spam.
    AS PER BoingBoings Posting Rules:
    “Please don’t post signatures, spam, astroturf or copypasta. Link to your website only on your profile page.”

  22. Well, thank you for bringing this excellent product to my attention, Mediafire. With adblock turned on, they’re actually one of the best free hosting sites around, so I’m sorry they’ve taken this unfortunate position.

  23. “your browser is your browser, and you can auto-click, rewrite, block, display or manipulate what shows up on your screen as much as you like and it’s no one’s business but your own.”

    You mean that there is no contract required for me to get the bits and render them onto my screen or copy them onto a physical drive? But what if I cut & paste some of that content and email it to a friend?! Can’t they prevent me from using my private property in ways that doesn’t please them?

  24. I don’t run AdBlock. I run NoScript… for security reasons, but it has some pleasant side-effects: Most ads load via javascript.

    On work machines, outside sites get manually approved and only for that visit.

    At home, I allow the 1st-party scripts by default, but 3rd-party scripts are blocked. For example, boingboing.net can run scripts with no approval, but scripts from fmpub.net (and digg, tweetmeme, fbshare… really guys?) don’t load.

    This blocks most ad networks (and tracking, and XSS, and malware, even if the site has been compromised…) without relying on any kind of blacklist. Now, if you host ads on your own domain, noscript won’t block them and that’s just fine by me.

  25. How refreshingly unlike DailyKos.com, whose “owner”, Markos, says, “fuck you, fans, if you don’t like it pay a subscription fee”, in response to a member uprising when he sold the entire page background for advertising, even moving his banner down so people would accidentally click on an ad link on the top – essentially making DailyKos a sponsor of the TV show, rather than featuring an ad for the show on the DailyKos site.

    When you use an ad blocker, you get a big block on the top tsktsking you and telling you to pay up.

    Of course, it’s trivially simple to get rid of that tsktsk, along with the whole annoying background AND the extra sneaky hotlink on the top.

    Just download the AdBlock Plus extension for Firefox – and then, download the Element Hiding Helper extension to AdBlock Plus.

    With the Element Hiding Helper, you just click on any element on the page, and it writes the filter for you to completely eliminate it from the page.

    I’m going to a) send a donation to BoingBoing, and b) make a point of telling as many people as possible on DailyKos about AdBlock Plus, until Markos remembers that it is the community that made his appearances on Olbermann possible.

  26. If it’s so evil to *not* view ads that are part of a website, why haven’t they sued the developers of lynx/links/other text-mode web browsers?

  27. @ Clif Marsiglio

    I don’t believe there is a social contract as you describe. I’m arguing that the presumption of the social limits innovation in developing new business/support models. And that by passively assenting to it users are in fact hurting themselves and businesses in the long term.

    Forget today and tomorrow for a moment. Do you think that the content-for-advertising model is sustainable in 15 years time? It’s the same model that has plagued network Television and has its programming on the ropes as sponsors pull out.

    The model is broken. You can try to Red Queen patch it all you want, but it will be gone soon enough (with hopefully something better to replace it.)

  28. Anonymous,

    The social contract is that if you want to enjoy someone elses services, you should give something in return. Give / Take…contract…a moral one, not a legal one.

    Then again, in this society, we ALL think we are entitled to anything without consideration of others. There is very little we aren’t selfish in, and we try to justify it in many ways. Me? If I don’t like the terms someone is offering, I go elsewhere…if I realize it is the only way, then I either accept it, or I go with nothing.

    Then again, yours is the same argument that pirates give for copyright infringement. I know it is a popular pastive on this site, but I own nothing that wasn’t aquired by a commonly accepted agreement by me and the creator (or their authorized representatives). It has EVERYTHING to do with respecting what others wish to do with their work, and the knowledge that I can find an alternative (even if it is having nothing) to their wishes. If I don’t respect the person on the other side, I want nothing to do with their work to begin with…with the exception of food and shelter, I can’t see any reason to break this moral code.

  29. @ Clif Marsiglio

    I may be missing a technical detail about how ads are served that would make me reconsider your argument.

    Honest Questions:

    1) If I visit your site in, say FF3 with Ad Block plus on, do the metrics look any different on your end? Are the ads recorded as served (and I happened not to see them?) Or are they not recorded at all?

    If they are not recorded at all then I can see your social contract argument. But if the company advertising is simply doing a page hit/unique visitor analysis then I don’t think any social contract is violated as your site metrics would not be negatively affected.

    2) If I utilize/like your site, do I owe it to you to click on the ads? And do I owe it to you to be influenced/consider/or buy something from the advertising company?

    I actually want to know about both questions if you have a chance to respond.


  30. HBeyle —

    If you come to my site without viewing the ads due to a blocker, you have wasted my resources without the ability for me to offset the cost to the sponsor.

    You have now cost ME money. It might not be that much, but considering I might make a penny or two a page being opened, you just took a few cents out of my pocket. if you visit my site on a regular basis, that might be a few dollars, tens of dollars, whatever…I don’t care how much money it is, if someone had a dime laying on the counter in front of him and turned around, I’m not going to snag it from him just because it just isn’t that much. Moral codes are actually put to the test with LITTLE things like this…you aren’t a good person because you didn’t take the pile of money you see left out on someones desk, you are a good person for not taking the change out of their coffee cup sitting on the same desk.

    As for #2, this should NEVER be the case. The only thing you owe is that you don’t remove the thing that pays the bills even if it annoys you. That is not part of the social contract…though I’ve seen sites ask folks to do this…I find this tacky. Back in the day, I remember one musicians site where to grab his music you were instructed to click on 4 sites and the password to get the download was the first word on each site. I never did get his music because it wasn’t worth it. Again, you have EVERY right to say screw this, it isn’t worth this to me.

    As for being owed to influenced to consider or buy a product, hell no…

    Then again, the way I ran my sites — never sold click throughs. Never gave any metrics to advertisers other than our users general demographics that were voluntarily given for this purpose. The costs were still quantifiable per user. I also hand selected our advertisers…if we didn’t use a product, we didn’t advertise it. Companies could send us the product, but it guaranteed nothing…something several companies didn’t understand and got pissy about. I actually returned a month and a half of already paid / used ad fees to one company that ended up not being the type of company I wanted connected to my own. I didn’t want ANY of their money tainting mine…(much to the consternation of my general manager).

    Currently, I haven’t cared about running ads in over a year…we have enough reserves that it isn’t a big deal. Ads ARE annoying…but they do make the world go round…

  31. This kinda reminds me when advertisement panels equipped with presence-detection to start blurting sonor slogans were installed in Paris’ subway. It didn’t took two hours after the subway opened for all of them to be shattered to pieces. The journalists that reported it didn’t even bother to discuss the reasons of this happening. And none of them called it “vandalism”. A few of them went as far as praising the sense of initiative of their compatriots.

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