I was recently directed to a couple of papers on browser ad-blocking software (here and here). They are not so much alarmist as they are self-serving and hindered by status quo bias.

Ad blockers remind me of music piracy since the advent of Napster. The technical details are different, but the dynamic is the same — a consumer gets what they want at a lower price, through technical means.

Then, as now, few users thought of themselves as violating any rights. They simply used a product they liked. And if their friend turns them on to a tool that makes it better or cheaper, great.

Then, as now, one could make the not-illegitimate argument that one is stealing or in some way depriving a creative artist or organization of revenue. Those accustomed to making a living in the field call their customers immoral. They predict the decline of product as we starve it of revenue.

Plausible! But wrong. The argument is as impotent as it was 10 years ago.

Ad blocking, like music piracy, is best understood as a market phenomenon. A class of users prefers that experience over the more “expensive” one.

Market data seems like an opportunity to make a better product.

Steve Jobs recognized this, and responded with iTunes. A better product that competed against piracy. (It also competed with the legacy model of album sales.)

Today, Medium.com is positioned as Apple was with music piracy. They see ads as making a worse product. So they are trying to make a better one.

They sell transparent sponsorships that respect the user, so it’s not like they are against making money. Rather, it’s a more evolved product shaped by user preference.

By the way, the record companies weren’t wrong. They shrank a lot. They were indeed threatened by piracy and by Apple’s decoupling of songs from albums.

But it’s not like music has suffered. It’s as good or better than it’s ever been. Production quality and distribution are great. More people hear more songs.

Remember, the “good old days” of profitable record-making worked for maybe 1% of artists. It was not a halcyon. It was high barriers to entry and a power law that favored few.

Maybe we’ve shaved some profit from middlemen. But consumer surplus has increased. Which seems like economic progress, no?

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