Unblocked: UCR research reveals abundance of anti-adblocking software

Stephanie Ma/HIGHLANDER

On Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017, a UCR research study was published reporting that up to 3,050 of the top 10,000 visited websites use anti-ad blockers. This is up to 52 times more websites than previous research on the matter has suggested. Adblockers are software designed to circumvent online advertisements on websites by blocking advertising scripts.

The research paper was authored by assistant UCR Professor Zhiyun Qian and associate UCR Professor Heng Yin, both in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. The abstract reports that the response of websites to adblockers by using anti-adblockers has “prompted an escalating arms race between (the two softwares).”

The main reason for the rise of anti-adblockers is websites’ loss of revenue from unseen ads. Pagefair, the “global authority on adblocking,” reports that 11 percent of global internet users use adblockers, according to a 2017 report. This translates into “billions of dollars worth of lost advertising revenue for online publishers,” according to the research paper.

Qian remarks that in the place of advertisements, websites can regain lost revenue with alternative sources of income, such as paid subscription fees. “There are definitely alternative revenue models that people are looking at; for instance, the subscription-based model (Youtube Red) that Youtube has been trying,” said Qian, “So you can pay just a small monthly subscription fee to avoid ads.”

To gather a rough statistic on what UCR students think of that proposition, we chose 80 students at random and asked them three questions: If they used an adblocker on their personal devices; if they were willing to pay subscription fees for internet services, after being told that adblockers are a revenue-related reason; and if they would still use adblockers after viewing the second question.

Of the 52 students that did use adblockers, 42 said they would not pay a subscription fee, yet would continue using the software, despite knowing of the lost revenue. Jennifer Lee, a first-year chemistry major, summarizes the feelings of that majority. “There are certain websites that don’t let you view the page unless you disable the adblocker or pay a fee, but even then, I don’t want to see ads before Youtube videos,” Lee said. Only eight were persuaded to stop using adblockers, seven of whom would also not want to pay a subscription fee.

However, Qian further points out that using an adblocker can result in litigative action by a website, on the grounds of copyright violation within the site scripts. A script is a compilation of coding that a site uses to function, controlling a webpage based on prior actions. Adblockers work by referring to a list of scripts it was programmed to “block,” and prevents any website scripts on its list from executing.

Qian explains that the legal issues occur when blocked scripts are written to enforce copyright laws set up by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and when the site can tell that an adblocker is the reason. “The script (of a website) can sometimes do two things together: They detect adblockers, and they could also be enforcing DMCA,” explained Qian. “If you block the script as a whole, which is oftentimes what adblockers do, then you’re in trouble. Websites are now suing people, suing adblockers on the basis that their DMCA protection is being violated.”

Qian and his team have tried working around this problem with the creation of a supplementary adblocker plugin on Chrome that helps avoid blocking an entire script. “The ads are blocked by Chrome, but we’re filtering the virtual actions that are trying to detect and punish users using adblock,” he said. “We’re complementary to adblockers in a sense, trying to protect the integrity of the adblocker.”

Currently, they are working on their own adblocker, one that can better avoid detection. “We’re in the progress of building a better adblocker, one that’s not as easily detectable, so that you can keep it running for as long as you want.”

Assistants during the research include UCR graduate student Shitong Zhu, New York’s Syracuse University graduate Xunchao Hu, with a Ph.D in Electrical and Computer engineering and University of Iowa Assistant Professor Zubair Shafiq.

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