The newspaper industry is upping its tactics in the fight against ad blockers.
The Newspaper Association of America, the industry group that represents 2,000 newspapers (including The Washington Post), filed a federal complaint against the ad-blocking industry Thursday, alleging that software companies that enable users to block ads are misleading the public.
The complaint asks the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency that oversees trade practices, to investigate ad blockers that offer "paid white-listing" - a service that charges advertisers to bypass ad-blocking software - along with services that substitute ad blockers' own advertising for blocked ads or get around publishers' subscription pages.
The NAA complaint comes as the newspaper industry continues to struggle with dramatic changes that have eroded its business. Advertising revenue has dropped from roughly US$50 billion (NZ$74.7 billion) a decade ago to less than half of that today, according to the NAA. Revenue from print advertising continues to slip as readers consume more news online, and digital advertising brings in far less revenue than print.
Publishers increasingly feel that they cannot afford to lose revenue from digital ads.
They believe that the industry's future is dependent on digital advertising - particularly the practice of showing tiny ads on smartphones, which the public is spending a growing share of its reading time on.
But consumers often find those smartphone ads to be intrusive and pesky.
Today, users are blocking 11.7 per cent of all ads, according to a recent survey by the ad-blocking company Optimal and Wells Fargo. The rise of ad blockers is also tied to a 2015 decision by Apple to allow ad blockers on iPhones and other company devices.
In recent months, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Post have experimented with messages that gently ask readers to turn off ad blockers or to consider subscribing. The FTC complaint demonstrates a growing willingness by publishers, who in the past have minimized the issue, to be more aggressive.
The FTC said it had no comment.
Ben Williams, head of operations and communications for the ad-blocking software AdBlock Plus, owned by Eyeo - one of the companies mentioned in the NAA suit - said in an emailed statement that the NAA has misconstrued the services the company offers.
The "only part of [NAA's allegations] that resembles reality is the part about ad blocking being a statement of consumer dissatisfaction with an ad industry that has spied on them, deceived them and, most of all, annoyed them with intrusive ads for years."
Williams said the company white-listed only ads that adhered to specific criteria, including size requirements and not disrupting the reading experience.
He disputed the allegation that AdBlock Plus offered a pay-to-play system in which users weren't told that ads they had paid to block were being let in for a fee. Users, he said, could block all ads if they chose to do so.