The creator of the online software that prevents adverts from appearing on websites have defeated two news publishers that wanted to prevent the Adblocker being used on their pages.
The owners of Germany’s Die Zeit and Handelsblatt had claimed that AdBlock Plus’s product was “anti-competitive” and threatened their ability to make money. The idea is not without merit as AdBlock prevents all but whitelisted advertisements, which we will come to later, being displayed when you are anywhere on the internet. This would mean that a significant revenue stream could be removed from a websites money making plans.
The court in Hamburg saw things differently and ruled that internet users have the right to use the plug-in. This judgement however also means that there are further implications for other disputes involving the tool.
AdBlock Plus’s project manager, Ben Williams, wrote on its blog that, “The Hamburg court decision is an important one because it sets a precedent that may help us avoid additional lawsuits and expenses defending what we feel is an obvious consumer right: giving people the ability to control their own screens by letting them block annoying ads and protect their privacy,”
The blog post would continue to say, “Now that the legalities are out of the way, we want to reach out to other publishers and advertisers and content creators and encourage them to work with Adblock Plus rather than against us.”
This however may not be the end of the fight, the publishers have indicated that they intend to fight on.
In a joint statement the companies said, “We are still convinced that AdBlock Plus is an illegal and anti-competitive practice.” The statement would continue, “It infringes the freedom of the press. Therefore, we will await the written reasons for the judgment, analyse them and examine the prospects of an appeals procedure.”
AdBlock Plus, which is owned by the Cologne-based firm Eyeo, faces three separate, and yet related, cases involving the media groups, ProSiebenSat.1, RTL Interactive and Axel Springer.
The recent court case contests that the legality of AdBlock Plus’s software suppressing adverts from the pages of the Zeit Online, Handelsblatt and Wirtschafts Woche news sites is at best, tenuous. As the ruling shows however the courts feel it is a consumer right to avoid advertisement if they so choose.
Their publishers had been seeking damages, but said their motivation was to challenge the software provider’s larger business model as a whole. “We are, of course, questioning the offer [of] Adblock Plus in general,” Ebba Schroder, a spokeswoman for Zeitverlag Gerd Bucerius told the BBC.
AdBlock Plus offers its web browser add-on to the public for free and yet it is still a profitable company. AdBlock does this by operating a “white list” of adverts that it allows to get through its filters.
Such ads must meet a very specific criteria, for instance they must not include animations or sounds and cannot be pop-ups that cover other content on a webpage. The website operators that want ads on their site added to the white list must seek permission from AdBlock executives.
Although AdBlock Plus states that “no one can buy their way onto the white list”, this was to prevent larger companies simply strong arming their way in, it does charge fees for what it terms “support services”, the details of which are not made public.
In February, the Financial Times was able to report that one media company, which remained unnamed, had said it had been asked to pass on the equivalent of 30% of the extra revenues it would have made by having ads on its platform unblocked.
That report led to some of the more vocal critics claiming that the Eyeo is engaged in a “racket”. The firm, of course, insists that term is “imprecise and wrong”.
Eyeo highlighted that its service has proved enormously popular with users; AdBlock Plus has been downloaded nearly 400 million times. They also made sure to note that they do not charge fees to smaller businesses and blogs, and allows users to block its white-listed ads if desired.
“If we are racketeers we are terrible racketeers because 90% of the people on the white list don’t pay anything and the criteria is the same for everyone,” Mr Williams told the BBC. He would continue to say to the BBC that, “The ruling is living proof of the unalienable right of every user to enjoy online self-determination.”
However, one lawyer, who is not involved in the German cases, noted that other European courts might not necessarily take the same view as the one in Hamburg. Paul Henty from the law firm Charles Russell Speechlys said, “The Hamburg court based its decision on the provisions of EU Law… other national courts in EU member states must do likewise, but are not bound to reach the same legal conclusions.” This wiggle room could potentially prove problematic if other European courts reach different decisions the Hamburg court.
Henty continued by saying, “There could also be different factual or economic circumstances in those jurisdictions which lead to a different result. Nonetheless, the Hamburg judgment may be persuasive as an authority and will certainly be a boon to Eyeo in similar AdBlock disputes.”
Whilst this decision might not appear to mean much on the surface it could have an enormous effect on advertising online. The ability to advertise on your own website meant that the websites could make money in an entirely different way. The precedent may just have been set which allows for the consumer to avoid advertising online. It might also alter the way websites now view advertising of theirs, or others products, it means that they have to change to meet the demands of customers and not their purse strings.
If nothing else websites having to find other ways to make money is not necessarily a bad thing for the future. The internet is an enormous community and the courts may just have spoken for that community.