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July 1, 2008

Anonymous Crusader Takes On Pop-Up Ad Industry

Rick752 is a machinist in his fifties in upstate New York who hates the blizzard of advertisements on the Web. From his upstairs den, he has become the self-appointed scourge of the $40 billion Web advertising industry.


p(photo-credits). CC license ND, NC by velo_city from “Flickr”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/velo_city/173981241/

Rick752, who insists upon maintaining his anonymity in order to avoid harassment, is the creator of the EasyList ad-blocking list The list enables millions of Web users to block those annoying pop-up ads, jittery animations for mortgages, and the incessant ad clutter that intrudes upon most Web users. People can download Web pages more rapidly and avoid the risk of getting their computers infected with viruses or spyware.

For Rick752, who compiles the list from his upstairs den every evening, it’s all a public service. He does not get paid, and the list is free. But he has attracted a community of about a dozen Internet friends, who help update the ad-blocking list and counter the subterfuges by advertisers to evade his list.

There are a number of ad-blocking lists out there, but EasyList and AdblockPlus are by far the most popular ones. Adblock Plus is also compiled by a public-spirited amateur, although this one’s identity is known: Wladimir Palant of Cologne, Germany. Both lists are tremendously effective, in part because they can be downloaded through Mozilla, the nonprofit that distributes the open-source Firefox browser and Thunderbird email client.

Call it the revenge of the commoners. The Internet started out as a non-commercial space for academics, but as the Internet went mainstream in the mid-1990s, advertisers soon realized that the Web was a cheaper, more efficient way to reach people. And so began the onslaught of online ads. Rick752 is simply reclaiming that space for the commoners.

Rick752 told the Washington Post, “I started it [EasyList] because I was frustrated with getting my computer infected from ads – malware and spyware and all that stuff. I know of went overboard with it. But you had to admit, it’s pretty amazing, right?”

The ad industry complains that ad-blocking applications, if they were to become universal, “could eliminate most of the money that supports online services and content.” That’s according to an official at Interactive Advertising Bureau.

But of course, ad-blocking eliminates only commercial online services. Commons-generated online content – e.g., Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, GNU/Linux and countless other digital venues – can continue to amass their valuable bodies of knowledge, unimpeded. Commercial content is not the only, or necessarily the best, online content.

The David vs. Goliath motif of Rick752’s work is marred by one complication: There are lots of relatively small, non-commercial sites that host online ads to raise modest amounts of operating revenue. Yet the ads on these quasi-amateur sites devoted to politics, sports, hobbies and much else, are also blocked by EasyList and Adblock Plus. Naturally, the mom-and-pop entrepreneurs who run the sites aren’t happy about this fact. Running a great website costs money, after all, and ads can be a reasonable way to finance things.

For me, it comes down to a matter of choice, both individual and collective. Should we be forced to “consume” advertisements? The vitality of the Web is based on individuals being able to have some meaningful control over their own computers, and indeed, to be an active, effective force in building the Web. Why should advertisers be able to hijack the medium and convert the biggest commons the world has ever known into a marketplace? For noncommercial sites that rely on some ads to finance themselves, the best approach is to get your community to disable the ad-blockers for your site, or to get people to pay for an ad-free site.

Rick752, whoever you are: You are to be saluted as the Great Anonymous Commoner. The idea that an ordinary guy working out of his upstairs den, without pay or public recognition, could invent a tool that combats rampant commercialism and malware abuses, and serve an important worldwide need, is impressive in the extreme.

Update: A reader has pointed out some misleading information in the original Washington Post article about Rick752. Adblock Plus is not a list of ads. but rather an extension for Firefox and Thunderbird that allows users to block ads. Adblock Plus is software that, when used in conjunction with a filtering list such as EasyList, blocks ads. Each is fairly useless on its own; together they can block Web ads.

Adblock Plus can be downloaded from addons.mozilla.org, a site for extensions to Firefox and Thunderbird. Users can also download EasyList there automatically, if it is selected as a subscription. Finally, Firefox isn’t distributed by the Mozilla Foundation, but by Mozilla Corporation, 100% of whose stock is owned by the Mozilla Foundation. See “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mozilla_Corporation”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mozilla_Corporation.