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Facebook has a way to beat your ad blocker

Facebook says it will let users have some control over the ads they do and do not see.
Facebook says it will let users have some control over the ads they do and do not see.
Published Sep. 26, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO — Digital ads pop up online so frequently and ubiquitously that many people are using software to block them.

But if you try to stop ads from showing up on Facebook's desktop website, you will now be out of luck: The social network has found a way to block the ad blockers.

Facebook is modifying its desktop website so that it essentially renders all ad blockers — the programs that prevent websites from displaying ads on the page when a user visits the site — useless. The change allows the Silicon Valley company to serve ads on its desktop site even to people who have ad-blocking software installed and running.

"Disruptive ads are an industry problem, and the rise of ad blockers is a strong signal that people just don't want to see them," Andrew Bosworth, vice president of Facebook's ads and business platform, said in an interview. "But ad blockers are a really bad solution to that."

Facebook's move is set to add to a furious debate about the ethics of ad blocking. On one hand, many digital ads are a nuisance — they slow loading times of web pages and detract from the online experience. Yet the ads also serve as the business foundation for many digital publishers to provide content to readers.

Ad blockers have become a threat to publishers including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which are facing declining advertising revenue. About 200 million people worldwide use ad-blocking software on their desktop computers, according to estimates from PageFair, an anti-ad-blocking start-up. An additional 420 million use ad blockers on their smartphones, the company said.

A number of digital publishers, including Wired, Forbes and the New York Times, have begun experimenting with anti-ad-blocking techniques, including asking visitors who use ad blockers to "whitelist" their sites so that ads may still appear.

Facebook's move is perhaps the strongest anti-ad-blocking measure taken by a major technology company, especially one that serves advertising to more than 1.7 billion monthly users globally. The effort is risky for the company, which prides itself on delivering the best user experience, because it could alienate some people for whom ad blocking is an ideological stance on how they wish to access the Internet.

Facebook will continue to let people have some control over the ads they do and do not see. The company is also rolling out an overhauled version of its ad preferences tool, which allows people to opt out of seeing certain types of ads on the site. That will help Facebook serve more relevant ads, rather than bombard people with ads they do not want.