A comprehensive history of the Acceptable Ads Committee

The Acceptable Ads Committee (AAC) is the nonprofit organization which sets the standards for what is and is not acceptable to show to Acceptable Ads users. It was first imagined back in 2015 as a way for Acceptable Ads to be legislated by a committee independent from any individual ad blocker. Since its first meeting in 2017, the AAC has flourished, seeing growth among its own representatives and in the base of ad-filtering users it serves.

 

So how did it all begin and grow to the current stage?

 

Chaos

The first ad blocker was a hobby project in 2002. It didn’t do much unless you told it to – and in order to tell it to you needed to be pretty good with technology – so not many people used it. 

 

Then in 2006, Wladimir Palant forked the original, open-source ad-blocking code and called it Adblock Plus. Among other things, he made two chief changes to the code: he let you deactivate your ad blocker on certain pages and he made the ad blocker functional right when you installed it. No tech understanding required, no problem. Consumers downloaded this one-man project by the millions.

 

But there was trouble in paradise. While ad blocking was fantastic in theory, in practice it deprived content creators of their only source of revenue: ads. And it wasn’t just Adblock Plus in the game at this point – other ad blockers had come along. As ad blocking expanded exponentially, content creators and publishers, already making less money online than they did in the halcyon days of print, couldn’t have seen ad blockers as anything other than an affront. From the consumer perspective, however, ads had gotten out of hand and ad blockers were a way to regain some measure of control over the chaos.

 

Out of chaos, something resembling compromise

 

To understand why the AAC exists, you need to first picture the two sides here. You have the ascendant ad blockers entrenched on one side, ready to clear all in their path. They didn’t feel a part of any value proposition with publishers, because they believed their devices were truly theirs and they did not want to be burdened with intrusive ads that might slow down their browsers. On the other side are publishers, who previously made money hand over fist selling print ads and classifieds – money which funded the content that enriches everyone’s lives – but who were struggling online. Neither side wanted to give an inch. And between them? Chaos. 

 

Then you have Wladimir, the man who empowered people with his extension, suffering what might (now) be a diagnosable condition: ad block developer’s guilt. In addition, he had already anticipated that ad-blocking disruption would be so detrimental that some publishers would sue (… him).

 

To solve the guilt problem he tried to share why he was feeling that way with his users … by prompting them with a notification to disable Adblock Plus on sites that the extension noticed they had visited often. Valiant idea, which you can read all about in a Farhad Manjoo interview with Wladimir at the time, but people said the notification reminded them of an online annoyance. 

 

Undeterred, he moved on. As you can read in that piece, he already thought that “intrusive and annoying ads” were bad. This was why people downloaded ad blockers in the first place – it wasn’t the subtle rectangle ad on the side of an article, it was the video ad that marauded unannounced across their screen that annoyed them.

So he introduced what at the time sounded crazy: what if ad blockers didn’t block everything? What if they only blocked some of the things, just the really annoying ones? Again, while this may sound boringly normal now – today, most users filter rather than block – back then it got everybody riled up. The Ad Block Wars that followed are another story, maybe a book actually, for another day. Suffice to say, everyone had an opinion about an approach that was neither one thing, nor the other, but rather … uh, something in between. Right between the two “sides.”

 

The idea was simple: you formulate objective criteria, and if ads fit those criteria, they are not filtered out by the ad blocker. Importantly, users could still turn this option off if they preferred to block absolutely everything. After formulating the first criteria with users in the Adblock Plus open forum, Adblock Plus began this insane idea called ad filtering.

 

So that solves the guilt thing, but what about the he’s-gonna-get-sued issue? Well, while it was easy to whitelist small sites, there were, unexpectedly, a few large sites and ad networks that applied for whitelisting. This proved to be a lot of work – when you have to build up an infrastructure to make sure ads get served and deal with the business relationships involved with partners it requires more people. So, he charged for the service. And to charge anyone anything, you have to have a company. There you have eyeo, the company whose website you’re now visiting. By providing a valuable service, it allowed the nascent company to take on new projects and guard against any legal threats. Which came. Basically all the biggest publishing companies in Germany sued eyeo. If we hadn’t had money, we would have shuttered the business, and they would have outlawed ad blocking – not just Adblock Plus – in Germany. Did I mention Wladimir is a pretty smart guy?

 

Out of compromise, independent self governance

 

The crazy idea of Acceptable Ads was a surprising success. There was more control for users, and the number of publishers and ad networks proliferated. There was, however, a problem. Even if the criteria for acceptability were developed with users, eyeo had the final say in what the criteria were – and at the same time they, we, were enforcing the criteria through the Adblock Plus extension. Despite best intentions, any time the enforcer of a law is the same body making the law, it leaves open the possibility for corruption. Plus, it prevented other ad blockers from joining.

 

There needed to be a separation. That is, if we were going to be the cops enforcing the law, there needed to be a separate congress deciding what the laws were. Since nothing like this had ever been done before, we decided to consult the digital advertising industry, first in a listening session in New York and then another in London.

 

The result was the AAC. Or at least it was the initial idea behind what a committee would be. Then, in conjunction with other ad blockers, we worked out the details. Those details are admittedly long and boring, but these are the basics:

 

  • Identity: The AAC is an independent, nonprofit organization, registered as a 501(c)(3) in the United States.
  • Coalitions and representatives: It consists of 3 “coalitions”: the User Advocate Coalition, the For-Profit Coalition and the Expert Coalition. Each coalition has the following allocation of seats, which are filled by representatives:
    • User Advocate Coalition (4): 3 seats for digital rights organizations (think nonprofits concerned with digital rights) and 1 seat for an actual user
    • For-Profit Coalition (4): 1 seat apiece for publishers, advertisers, agencies and ad-tech
    • Expert Coalition (3): 1 seat apiece for creative agents (think designers, UX folks, creative agencies etc.), researchers and user agents (people at companies producing things like privacy software or browsers)

  • Meetings: there are two meetings a year for representatives, where voting happens, and there are additional meetings throughout the year where members join. In addition, each coalition can meet as many times as they want on their own.
  • Quorum: In order to reach a minimum amount of people to have a vote, a quorum of 4 representatives must be met. Of these 4, 1 has to be an advertiser or ad agency, 1 must be a publisher and 2 representatives from the User Advocate Coalition must be present.
  • Balance: The AAC is structured so that regardless of the actual amount of representatives and users in the respective coalitions, the User Advocate and For-Profit coalitions balance. The purpose of this is to create balance between user interests and those of the digital advertising industry.
  • Members: While only the representatives vote, each representative can have a veritably innumerable amount of members, who inform and advise them for voting. The AAC has members and representatives from leading global organizations and companies, including the Ad Council, trivago, Rakuten, Blockthrough, the Media Trust, TED, Dennis Publishing, the Local Media Consortium, Arvind from Princeton University, the University of Iowa and many others. Please find all representatives and members listed here.
  • Rules: The AAC is governed by a set of bylaws.
  • Mission: “The AAC will change the Acceptable Ads Criteria for what constitutes an Acceptable Ad, and thereby govern the Acceptable Ads initiative by creating standards for ads that adblocker users will deem acceptable and that bring value to publishers and advertisers.”
  • What can the criteria be about? The format of an ad, including its size, position, label and other factors, as well as security and privacy.
  • Criteria-making process: The bylaws stipulate that any criteria be based upon research. The first step in this process is deciding what types of new criteria they would like to investigate. Then, a research subcommittee works with an independent research vendor to craft an experiment to test new criteria on ad-blocking users. Finally, the AAC interprets the research and votes on new criteria. At this point, those new criteria are officially part of the Acceptable Ads standard. Finally, participating ad blockers get the new criteria and eyeo executes the standard, including handling all whitelisting services. 

What’s all that boil down to? Well, basically, there is an open ecosystem that has grown to serve up to 200 million ad-filtering users in the world, with an ad experience that they will accept and derive value from. And the AAC makes the rules in that ecosystem.

 

The committee convened its first meeting on July 11, 2017 in New York. Since then, they have met 4 additional times. These meetings have resulted in the first ever criteria specifically tailored to acceptable mobile advertising experiences, research into browser fingerprinting, a non-cookie way that people track consumers online, and promising research on video ad standards, which will be used to investigate if there is such a thing as an acceptable video ad.

 

Out of self governance, what’s next?

 

The internet is probably closer to lawless than orderly, even now. The digital advertising industry has done a tremendous job in setting up regulations, as well as organizations to enforce or shepherd those regulations. That is not to say that each of these organizations does a great job; nor is it to say that all of the self-governing regulations are enforced well – or even make sense.

 

But the trick of creating something that works in the unruly online realm is accepting that there will always be a little chaos. Users created the internet; they created ad blockers; hell, they created ads, even if they didn’t think of them as ads at the time. If consumers have such a large hand in the internet there will always be a handful of them who don’t play by the rules.

 

The success of the AAC is that it accepts this. After all, it makes rules that ad-filtering users can easily opt out of. That removes them from a value proposition with publishers, more or less, but it maintains their essential freedom. The other reason for the success is that users have a seat at the table – and in fact, they have an equal and opposite seat with industry (see bullet point entitled “Balance” above … in the long, boring part).

About the same time that the AAC started, a group of leading trade associations launched the other-mentioned committee, the CBA, to “improve consumers’ experience with online advertising … and to develop and implement new global standards for online advertising that address consumer expectations.” 

 

Despite a different approach, these two organizations arising at about the same time was a positive signal that consumers were being heard and that there can be meaningful self-regulation of the internet. 

 

We can’t predict the future but, in any case, let’s all embrace 2020 and make it the year of the consumer.

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