Is This the Future of Ad Blocking?

For many publishers, it’s been considered the only safe harbor on the current ad blocking war. Native advertising has, due to its construction, been largely unaffected by most ad blockers.

This is one of the reasons why, in the face of rampant consumer adoption of ad blockers, publishers and brands have found lots to like about sponsored content as the one type of advertising that can get past the blockage.

That may be about to change, according to Princeton-based computer science researcher Arvind Narayanan.

“We believe that due to the architecture of web browsers, there’s an inherent asymmetry that favors users and ad blockers. We have devised and prototyped several ad blocking techniques that work radically differently from current ones. We don’t claim to have created an undefeatable ad blocker, but we identify an evolving combination of technical and legal factors that will determine the ‘end game’ of the arms race,” he writes in Freedom to Tinker.

Narayanan, along with two of his colleagues at Princeton University and another at Stanford, built a tool that detects sponsored posts and native ads that would slip by regular ad blockers that scan the ad’s HTML markup.

Instead, their new tool ignores the hidden HTML, and looks at the content itself for the telltale clue.

“Our project began last summer when Facebook announced that it had made ads look just like regular posts, and hence impossible to block,” he explains. “Indeed, Adblock Plus and other mainstream ad blockers have been ineffective on Facebook ever since. But Facebook’s human users have to be able to tell ads apart because of laws against misleading advertising. So we built a tool that detects Facebook ads the same way a human would.”

It’s sublime. Because brands must clearly indicate sponsored content, this tool reads the content like a human would, thereby finding – and blocking – the offenders. And with the continuing FTC smack down on native ads, advertisers will be hard-pressed to find a way around this.

While publishers may be crying foul, many believe they’ve brought it on themselves. “As long as advertising remains garbage, we will continue to rely on technology to help us get rid of it in one way or another,” writes Enrique Dans in LinkedIn. “The argument that this hurts publications is in vane: there will always be ways for good information to reach people either through subscription or other means.”

Meanwhile, kudos to the research team for creating this game-changer… at the same time recognizing the important ethical debate going on.

“To avoid taking sides on the ethics of ad blocking, we have deliberately stopped short of making our proof-of-concept tool fully functional — it is configured to detect ads but not actually block them,” the article notes.

“Our research is about what can be done and not what should be done; we look forward to participating in the ethical debate.”