Silencing dissent? IAB blocks Adblock Plus from internet advertising conference

The Interactive Advertising Bureau uninvited Adblock Plus from its annual advertising conference, a move Adblock Plus said is to keep dissenting voices from being heard.

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It usually doesn’t work out very well for a group that attempts to silence dissent, but the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is giving it a try nonetheless.

The IAB uninvited Adblock Plus from its annual leadership conference to be held next week in Palm Desert, California. Adblock Plus had paid the “hefty entrance fee” and was listed as attending the IAB event, until IAB struck Adblock Plus from its list of attendees.

On the Adblock Plus blog, Ben Williams explained that the company believed there had been a mistake when an email came saying the company’s registration had been canceled for the IAB summit and the registration fee returned. After all, Adblock Plus attended last year and coaches “IAB members about our Acceptable Ads guidelines for reasonable, nonintrusive ads.”

Yet after Adblock Plus replied that “there must be some confusion,” the IAB clarified, “I’m sorry if there's any confusion. Just to be clear, there will be no ticket available for you and we’ve refunded your registration fee.”

IAB kicks Adblock Plus from advertising conference Adblock Plus

Williams wrote, “Like dis-inviting us will make the problem somehow go away! We contacted the IAB’s CEO Randall Rothenberg directly to ask him to reconsider this decision, and we got … crickets …”

Williams added:

Sadly, if the leader of the largest advertiser trade organization does not have the cojones to allow dissenting voices to be heard, then he does so at his own peril. Ad industry pundits have blamed themselves for the meteoric rise of ad blocking, and some of IAB’s own lieutenants have called for Rothenberg’s resignation. We’re beginning to see why.

IAB, which is made up of 650 leading media and technology organizations that serve about 86% of online ads in the U.S., did make an official comment, just not to Adblock Plus. “The IAB Annual Leadership Meeting is for serious conversation among important digital industry stakeholders,” the statement read.

There are many conferences where the doors are only open to specific attendees. For example, ISS World America, described as the world's largest gathering of North American law enforcement, Intelligence and Homeland Security analysts, and telecom operators responsible for lawful interception, hi-tech electronic investigations and network intelligence gathering and sharing, is only open to individuals and vendors of those groups. Law enforcement wants to keep the snooping details a secret from potential targets, from reporters and from voices of dissent.

Yet ad blocking is a topic that affects everyone online. Publishers are interested in ad blocking since they need to make revenue in order to keep content free and, according to a report by Adobe Systems and PageFair, ad blocking cost publishers $22 billion in 2015. Viewers who value privacy and security don’t want to be profiled, tracked, their data sold, their bandwidth gobbled up by loud, flashy ads, or to be served up malware in the latest malvertising campaign.

In the past, Scott Cunningham, IAB senior VP of technology and ad operations admitted, “We messed up. As technologists tasked with delivering content and services to users, we lost track of the user experience.”

The ad monetization model has tempted some websites to insist for viewers to turn off ad blockers in order to view content on that site. Forbes was a notable recent example as security researcher Brian Baskin documented that when he tried to view “The Forbes 30 Under 30” list and was directed to disable Ad Blocker, he “was immediately given pop-under malware.” Forbes replied that its strategy of blocking blockers works, that “nearly 44% of our test pool, or a total of 1.6 million visitors, has turned off ad blockers.”

Although it's not the first time Forbes served up malware, it is the ad network’s fault for the malware itself; so even though the IAB has compared ad blocking to “highway robbery,” ad blocking can protect users from malvertising.

Malvertising happens over and over again as documented by security teams such as at Malwarebytes when the Angler exploit kit was delivered via ads on MSN; it was served up earlier on Yahoo when it was described as the biggest malvertising attack on record as Yahoo has about 6.9 billion visitors per month; malvertising on DailyMotion put about 128 million viewers at risk and even Comcast customers were targeted with malvertising. Earlier this month, Malwarebytes reported that victims running outdated versions of Flash Player were immediately infected with CryptoWall ransomware via PopAds pop-under ad windows.

To the IAB, Williams said, “The over 400,000,000 downloads of Adblock Plus are not going to ‘go away.’ Dis-allowing Adblock Plus from attending your event solves nothing. We will proceed to work with others to build a sustainable monetization model for the Internet.”

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