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
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.
Yesterday Solid Oak, the Internet
filtering company that produces the Web filtering
software Cybersitter, introduced
tools to screen out banner ads.
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Today the company rescinded the tool that screens out ads in free email services,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
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
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."