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Old 09-03-2007, 11:56 AM   #1
ktinkel
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Default Sites blocking Firefox?

Whiting Out the Ads, but at What Cost?” (link good for a limited time) in the technology section of the New York Times today discusses Firefox and the AdBlock Plus plug-in. Author Noam Cohen likes blocking web ads, but also makes this comment:
The larger importance of AdBlock is its potential for extreme menace to the online-advertising business model.… From that perspective, the program is an unwelcome arrival after years of worry that there might never be an online advertising business model to support the expense of creating entertainment programming or journalism, or sophisticated search engines, for that matter.
Major site owners do not seem to be especially worried at this point (or aren’t discussing it, anyway). Firefox has only 15% of the market, after all. But the author says some small web sites are organizing against Firefox, saying they cannot block the plug-in from working so they will forbid access to anyone using Firefox.

The Times points to Why Firefox Is Blocked, one of the advocacy sites. I have been using Safari instead of Firefox, so have not seen that warning when browsing. Have you?

By the way, Safari also blocks ads, but I guess either the small site managers do not run into it, don’t know about its effective ad blocking, or do not care because of the low numbers of users.

   
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Old 09-03-2007, 01:54 PM   #2
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Originally Posted by ktinkel View Post
The Times points to Why Firefox Is Blocked, one of the advocacy sites. I have been using Safari instead of Firefox, so have not seen that warning when browsing. Have you?
No I have never seen it. (I don't use AdBlock either, I use a user stylesheet to "disappear" 99% of ads. That number is a guess, but a pretty good one, I think.)

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By the way, Safari also blocks ads, but I guess either the small site managers do not run into it, don’t know about its effective ad blocking, or do not care because of the low numbers of users.
So how does a server block a browser?
You can configure a server (or a script running on the server) to look for the user agent string: a string that any user agent (a browser is one type of user agent) is supposed to send as one of the headers in any request. This can be used to serve browser-specific content (e.g., stylesheets), or block, or (as apparently in this case) send the browser somewhere else.

And what can you do about it?
Several browsers allow the user to adapt or completely replace the user agent string the browser sends to the server. Opera has long been able to do it, but nor completely (the string "opera" always remains in some form). Firefox can do it as well, but I haven't tested yet whether this is complete. If you want to try:
  • open a new tab
  • in the address bar type: about:config
  • in the filter box type: agent
  • the string user.agent.extra.firefox is the one you want: make a note of its current value (so you can put it back later) and change it to anything you like
  • you may have to restart Firefox to make the change active

If you find that you are blocked (or redirected) by browser model and you browser doesn't support changing the user agent string, you could install a software proxy that enables you to do this. A popular one for Windows - even thouhg it's no longer maintained - is The Proxomitron (affectionately known as Proxo: it can do many, many more things than changing user agent strings!).

There is a certain 'danger' to changing the user agent string: if a site uses it to detect the capabilities of your browser and it doesn't recognize yours, you may get a "dumbed down" version of the site, or even find parts of the site don't work at all. In such cases using a proxy is often handier than changing the user agent string in the browser itself: you then only need to toggle the proxy on and off ('bypass' in Proxo).

   
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Old 09-03-2007, 02:01 PM   #3
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Whiting Out the Ads, but at What Cost?” (link good for a limited time)
I got a login prompt for that... but I know a working and widely shared login. PM me if you need it.

   
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Old 09-03-2007, 05:05 PM   #4
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I got a login prompt for that... but I know a working and widely shared login. PM me if you need it.
I am a subscriber, so have endless (I guess) access. But others may not have.

   
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Old 09-03-2007, 05:15 PM   #5
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Thanks. I know one can identify (and then block, it seems) a particular flavor of browser. Reading all that, though, I wondered why they cannot block or confuse the plug-in. The article implies that there are actually many flavors — and users can customize the filters — so maybe that is the problem.

The ethical issues are also interesting. The web site managers feel they are being cheated in a transaction. That is, they let you read their pearls of wisdom or pleasure but require you also to view their ads. Assuming that visitors buy into that agreement — and I do, in a general way — there is still the fact that too many ads create unnecessary problems for visitors.

For example: Things that blink do weird things to my mind (and do worse to others more susceptible). Scrolling text anywhere within view makes it nearly impossible to read anywhere on the page. Flash junk can be annoying; if it makes me wait, I resent it. If it makes my browser slow, I also resent it.

I can actually enjoy an ad that has some relevance to me, but so many of them are off the mark, chosen by some robot system somewhere. Does anyone seriously expect a visitor to click a link to info on a woodworking router when trying to research a computer device, for example?

I have a pretty standard desktop setup, have few serious problems that would require special viewing aids, etc. But for those who do, many of these ads are actually a barrier to viewing some sites.

The ethical issue is cloudy, in other words. But I believe the question will continue to arise.

   
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Old 09-03-2007, 08:44 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by ktinkel View Post
Thanks. I know one can identify (and then block, it seems) a particular flavor of browser. Reading all that, though, I wondered why they cannot block or confuse the plug-in. The article implies that there are actually many flavors — and users can customize the filters — so maybe that is the problem.
If AdBlock doesn't "attach" its signature to the user agent string, then there is no way you can recognize at the server end whether it's there or not. At least not by something as simple as inspecting the user agent string - you'd then have to look at behavior (not loading certain linked content) and that is much harder to detect and automate.

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Originally Posted by ktinkel View Post
The ethical issues are also interesting. The web site managers feel they are being cheated in a transaction. That is, they let you read their pearls of wisdom or pleasure but require you also to view their ads. Assuming that visitors buy into that agreement — and I do, in a general way — there is still the fact that too many ads create unnecessary problems for visitors.
But right from the start of graphical browsers users have had the choice whether to show images or not. And there are text browsers - a browser isn't required to show images. And for a long time graphical browsers have supported user stylesheets. There are aural browsers. Browsers allow to store a local copy as text only, without any embedded content.

The idea that a page with its embedded ads forms a copyrighted design that must not be changed and must be rendered exactly as intended just doesn't fly - it's always been up to the user what to retrieve and what to show, and how; copyright actually allows you do do with your own copy what you like as long it's for personal use. That's true for newspapers and books and magazines (where the double-page ads are the most expensive - yet they are the easiest to skip!), etc., and it's equally true for web pages. And surely users have a right to decide where to download material from to look at, and not to visit (let their browser visit) certain sites - and that includes sites that do nothing but serve ads.

It's not as though AdBlock is anything new (or user stylesheets for that matter). Little software proxies like Proxo have been able to do the same since long before AdBlock. And before even that, users have been able to edit their host files to block certain domains and IP addresses - still a quite effective method to block many ads and otherwise obnoxious material. So why the heck should AdBlock do anything special to make itself recognizable? None of the other methods of user control do.

So if those "small webmasters" start blocking by behavior, what will you get? They'll also block people on slow connections, or people who are blind and never load images anyway, and all who use text browsers. They're free to do so in general, of course (just as we are free to do what we choose with their content for our personal use) - but they may be getting into legal trouble there themselves since more and more countries legally require websites to be accessible...

   
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Old 09-04-2007, 06:24 AM   #7
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But right from the start of graphical browsers users have had the choice whether to show images or not. And there are text browsers - a browser isn't required to show images. And for a long time graphical browsers have supported user stylesheets. There are aural browsers. Browsers allow to store a local copy as text only, without any embedded content.
True enough.

Quote:
Originally Posted by iamback
The idea that a page with its embedded ads forms a copyrighted design that must not be changed and must be rendered exactly as intended just doesn't fly - it's always been up to the user what to retrieve and what to show, and how; copyright actually allows you do do with your own copy what you like as long it's for personal use. That's true for newspapers and books and magazines (where the double-page ads are the most expensive - yet they are the easiest to skip!), etc., and it's equally true for web pages. And surely users have a right to decide where to download material from to look at, and not to visit (let their browser visit) certain sites - and that includes sites that do nothing but serve ads.
I do not think this is a copyright issue in any form; that would be a red herring. The small sites are arguing that the ads are a fiscal necessity and that visitors must accept them on that basis. No copyright about it; just good old capitalism at work. But as you say, just as we have no requirement not to go to the bathroom when the ads come on on TV, not to skip those obnoxious two-page ads (the stiff ones that disrupt easy reading or, worse yet, the ones that stink!), we are not compelled to look at ads on the web.

Quote:
Originally Posted by iamback
So why the heck should AdBlock do anything special to make itself recognizable? None of the other methods of user control do.
Good point.

Quote:
Originally Posted by iamback
So if those "small webmasters" start blocking by behavior, what will you get?
In my case, a missing visitor. It would be a rare web site that would prompt me to fire up a special browser just to visit.

The accessibility issue is interesting. So far I see little impulse here to push for it on the web (or in buildings, for that matter), but we have an administration with a weak attachment to social values. This may change in the future.

   
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Old 09-04-2007, 08:17 AM   #8
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I do not think this is a copyright issue in any form; that would be a red herring.
Ah, but the "Why Firefox Is Blocked" site is using that red herring - in a quote from Firefox Adblock a Contributory Infringer?
Quote:
Like free television broadcast content supported financially by advertising, much of the content on the Internet today is distributed free to end-users for an indirect exchange of advertisement revenue. When a user loads an ad-driven copyrighted website, he produces a copy of the work due to the inherent architecture of the Internet. If this user is using Adblock to screen out annoying advertisements, he is creating an unauthorized derivative work analogous to skipping television commercials. By the letter of copyright law, this practice would most likely be seen as an infringing use.
And many people might believe they have a point (even if we know they don't - it's complete bull, in fact)!

But if you go to that page (like I now do), you'll see that many of the comments mirror many of my own arguments.

   
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Old 09-04-2007, 11:31 AM   #9
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Ah, but the "Why Firefox Is Blocked" site is using that red herring - in a quote from Firefox Adblock a Contributory Infringer?[/url]
I didn’t say it was your red herring!

Slightly off topic, today’s paper had a short piece about high-fashion clothing designers in the U.S. who are seeking legislative support for having clothing designs protected by copyright. The argument seems to be based solely on monetary loss — a claim that knockoffs cut designer revenue by 5 percent per year. The article said the designers have nine senators lined up to support such a measure.

In the old days, to knock off a garment design, you needed to have your hands on it — feel the fabric, see how it hangs, how it was cut and sewn and finished, and take a lot of measurements. The process took months, and by then the expensive stuff would have fulfilled its market expectations.

Now people take cell-phone snapshots at the semi-annual shows, e-mail them to India, come up with something that looks close enough to satify the mass market (copy the colors, the gross design, but not necessarily all the details and certainly not the subtler touches or the quality), and can have almost lookalike garments in U.S. (and probably European) stores within a month.

I can see how it would be annoying, but it is hard to believe that someone accustomed to — and happy to pay for — custom fabrics, fussy high-quality finishes, and really good design would ever settle for the cheap knock-offs. Snobbery would prevent them, if nothing else.

   
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Old 09-04-2007, 02:11 PM   #10
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It's an interesting problem. As much as anything else, it points to the problem of transferring a business model from one medium to another. What works for magazines may not work for web sites. It's too much work to cut the ads out of magazine articles before I read them, but easy to do if the magazine is electronic and viewed in a browser.

And if I've paid for the magazine and the advertisers have paid for the space, the publisher of the hardcopy magazine doesn't care what I do with it anyhow (other than making copies), where the web publisher's likely selling results, not space (ie, they're getting paid only when someone clicks on the ad or even when somebody clicks and buys; they get nothing for the space itself, by and large).

   
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