The latest round in the battle for a free internet came last week when Yahoo opted to ban adblockers from Yahoo Mail. Users of the mail service who were running adblockers were barred from accessing their email and presented with a message telling them to disable the plugins in order to continue. Needless to say, this move wasn’t very well received, but this type of heavy-handed tactic didn’t come completely out of the blue. Companies like Yahoo are increasingly bemoaning the negative impact of adblockers on the viability of ad-supported free content models. Yahoo’s action even led tech news site Cio.com to declare the web as ‘broken’.
The internet is most certainly at an important crossroads. The free and open nature – that allowed it to blossom and become the vast network that forms the backbone of modern society – may be poised to undo itself.
The greatest threat to the very principles that made the internet so revolutionary and disruptive are not external but internal.
When the internet first appeared on the scene, the impact it would have on society was unimagined. It was so easy to post things to the internet that companies just started putting everything they could up on it for free, without much thought about the long-term effect that might have. And now that the denizens of the internet have tasted free ad-less content, it’s going to be an extremely difficult uphill battle to get them to settle for anything else. Like Prometheus’ gift of fire or Pandora’s box, it’s too late for a recall. Plugins that block ads and cookies are even being built straight into browsers now. It’s virtually impossible to regulate the use of such plugins or to quench the appetite for free content.
A while back, I wrote an article on paywalls. Paywalls are one solution to the problem, having been implemented by many news sites like The New York Times. Paywalls may turn off many who have grown accustomed to (and who demand) free content, but they certainly yield a less irritating user experience than pop-ups and intrusive ads.
Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone has figured out the solution yet. There is a lot of talk and several potentially impactful ideas floating around, but the path remains unclear. All we can do is notice the problem and try to describe it as best we can. After that, we can only hope for the market to produce effective solutions and trust that they will win out in the end.
Those like myself, who have become attached to the idea of sharing and the free spread of information, can take some solace in knowing that we are not completely alone. Groups like Creative Commons and the free software movement unequivocally endorse and facilitate the creation of freely distributed content. Even public support for Net Neutrality, while it may be oversimplified and often misinformed, demonstrates that people understand the value of a free internet.
There is hope for the internet to remain a bastion of freedom as long as there are those who recognize the value of such a thing and are willing to work towards it. It can be difficult to trust the unseen forces that drive innovation in the face of widespread conflict and uncertainty. But we must remember it was these forces of innovation that first gave us the internet to begin with.