The case for ethical ad-blocking

Fans – take out the adtech middleman, and have a clear conscience?

Man on laptop has ethical dilemma (represted by angel and demon on either shoulder). Photo by Shutterstock
YouTube isn't exactly a money-spinner for artists, but on the other hand... Photo by Shutterstock

When is ad-blocking ethical? How about when the adtech industry is behaving so unethically it destroys people’s livelihoods?

Musician and music rights campaigner David Lowery last year made the incendiary suggestion that musicians should encourage their fans to block the advertising running on music-streaming sites – even though in the short term, it’s the musicians themselves who’ll take a hit in income. With the rise in ad-blockers, his idea is topical again, so let’s have a look at the merits of the argument.

Lowery’s proposition is that in the long term, musicians and songwriters will gain more than they lose in the short term. YouTube and Pandora offer a fraction of the royalties returned by sites such as Spotify (which isn’t very much anyway), and the free tier drives down the price. Therefore, doing what you can to sabotage the ad-supported sites is the ethical thing to do.

“In the fight for fair pay, artists are not at war with the internet or really even the streaming services, we are at war with the online advertising industry,” Lowery explained.

How much of a hit would artists take if every ad-supported music streamer went dark? Less than you think, Lowery suggests. The removal of Spotify’s free tier would see their payments drop only 16 per cent.

“But let's not get too distracted by that because the real crime is that YouTube pays so little it’s a joke,” he argues. “YouTube revenue is not gonna save artists and or the industry at large.   I will barely miss it.  And YouTube is clearly inhibiting the growth of subscription services that pay higher revenues.”

Spotify has argued that if the free tier disappears, people will simply steal music. But that overlooks two factors: people pay for convenience, and a good streaming site saves you a lot of time and trouble. And the cost of Doing The Right Thing is pretty low; a tenner a month barely buys two pints of beer in London. Nor is the idea of “ethical shopping” radical or new. Much is made of the power of consumers boycotting unethical businesses, but it’s slightly hypocritical to boycott arms dealers or oil companies or big tobacco, but then shun licensed music sources which pay musicians.

The music industry traditionally left songwriters and musicians last when it came to money, but the new tech oligarchs offer them even less. Pandora and YouTube are very different animals, but both have benefited from weak copyright law, albeit in very different ways.

Pandora takes advantage of the uniquely socialist system of a state-administered compulsory collective licence, with US Courts setting the price of music. Songwriters simply can’t opt out. It’s a weird hangover from a consent decree on performing rights societies. ASCAP, the US equivalent of the PRS, can’t refuse a licence to a broadcaster, while the broadcaster is only obliged to enter into negotiations. In this case, the rights-holder is denied the most fundamentally property-like aspect of a property right: excludability.

YouTube also benefits from a lack of excludability. As we explained here, YouTube can use a quirk in the DMCA to avoid having to put a stop to an unlicensed supply chain. The odds are stacked against anyone trying to enforce the legal supply chain. As a consequence of the DMCA loophole, YouTube generates about $1 per user, while Spotify generates $18.

In neither situation can the musician enforce their copyright cheaply and effectively and get on with making music. The deck is stacked in favour of the middleman using the music. The all-powerful middleman today is Big Tech. But changing copyright in favour of the little guy takes time, and isn't easy, especially when Facebook, Google and others have grown so wealthy from it and lobby hard against it.

Lowery thinks Google's dependence on data-mining and insipid copyright makes it uniquely “fragile”, to borrow Taleb’s usage, and vulnerable to disruption. A mass consumer revolt against privacy invasions, personal data mining, and unethical behaviour could leave Google vulnerable.

“My 60:40 bet is they are not nimble enough to do so without a serious hit to their revenue.”

But the internet isn’t about Google, or about adtech, he says. The internet couldn’t care less about Google.

So what do you think? Block away, with a clear conscience? ®

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