Advertising may be the goose that is laying the Internet's golden eggs, but at least one critic is predicting that the rise of ad filtering software could present a glitch to the system.
The critic, James Howard, created Internet Fast Forward, one of the first programs designed to filter out banner ads.
The software he produced was discontinued due to liability problems after he sold his company, PrivNet, to Pretty Good Privacy in November 1996. Howard said Internet companies had threatened to sue, accusing his company of violating their copyrights and modifying their pages. Howard had countered that users were the ones who controlled the content, not the software producers.
PGP decided the risk of lawsuits was too great and stopped production of the ad filtering program.
But now another large company is getting involved. And others also have jumped into the market. Howard sees it as a sign of a potential trend.
Brian Milburn, president of Solid Oak, said he introduced the filtering technology in response to requests from some of Cybersitter's 1.2 million customers, many of whom use older computers with slow Internet connections that make viewing banner ads a time-intensive task.
Today the company rescinded the tool that screens out ads in free email services, because users sign contracts saying they will accept ads in exchange for free email, Milburn said.
But the company is leaving in the filters that allow users to screen out banner ads on Web pages, he said.
Milburn said he isn't worried about lawsuits and he is trying to satisfy customer demand.
Milburn said there has been no rush to download copies of Cybersitter since he made the announcement. And he doubts that the ad-filtering part of his software will be what motivates people to purchase his product.
But the fact that a company with a product as popular as Cybersitter is getting into the business may be a sign that the business may be growing in popularity. Other companies also have been offering the ad filtering capability for several months.
Howard thinks that ultimately, so many companies and people will produce software allowing them to screen out banner ads that it could shake up the entire revenue model for the Internet.
Others disagree, doubting that ad filtering software will catch on in numbers large enough to make a difference. Other filtering technologies have not made a big dent in the Internet business. For example, several companies have software that allows people to prevent cookies from being written to individuals' computers. But so far no one is reporting that the software has made a material difference.
Advertisers argue that Netizens enter into an implicit agreement with Web companies to accept their ads in exchange for free information, similar to television viewers accepting commercials in exchange for free programming. But there are no explicit agreements, and many users want to rid their surfing experiences of large banner ads that can take minutes to load, Milburn said.
But if people do use ad filtering software, even critics admit it would have an impact on the industry. Howard thinks it is inevitable.
The release of the source code for an upcoming version of Netscape Communications' Communicator Net software suite will make the creation of programs to cut out ads even easier, he said.
"People are going to start writing these programs just for the fun of it," Howard said. "Some of these companies--all of these companies--that are pegging all their hopes on the future of the advertising stream are going to have to look elsewhere. Revenue on the Internet is not going to be as stable as people think it is. I don't know if that will be to the detriment or the benefit of the Net at large. That's just what's going to happen."
But Rich LeFurgy, president of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), said he wasn't worried about Cybersitter's product because the programs that can screen out ads have not gained widespread popularity yet.
He added that consumers understand that if they screen out ads, they are, in a sense, cutting off their link to the very Web sites that they know and use.
While acknowledging that banner ads can be too large at times, he said most Web sites limit banner size and added that advertisers are developing new technology to prevent users with slower computers and connections from getting bogged down by giant ads.
Plus, he added, the notion that people hate ads is greatly exaggerated. He said people have predicted the demise of advertising in just about every format.
Howard countered that Internet advertising is unique because the medium is interactive and users have much more control.
But LeFurgy said most people actually enjoy ads and look to them as a source of information.
"People who say they don't like advertising are part of the politically correct core who are the original core [of Internet users]," he said. "The research that IAB has done says that people do value advertising."