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YouTube Bans Ad Blockers. Are We Heading to the New Piracy Era?

YouTube's ad blocker ban ignites user fury. Will this drive a surge in online piracy? Join the debate on the future of content consumption.

Photo by Javier Miranda / Unsplash

After YouTube's recent crackdown on ad blockers, the platform faces a digital rebellion. Thousands of Reddit rants later, and it’s still unclear if users are ready to embrace the ad-filled experience or if the new YouTube course pushes them back into the arms of piracy. Let’s think about it together.

Adblock ban on YouTube: what happened?

YouTube's move to disable videos for ad blocker users, initially a "small experiment globally," has now expanded dramatically. Over the past several months, an increasing number of users with ad blockers have been unable to watch videos. This crackdown aligns with YouTube's stance that using ad blockers violates its terms of service. The platform argues that ads support a diverse ecosystem of creators globally, allowing billions to access content.

Paradoxically, alongside the ad blocker ban, YouTube has increased the prices for YouTube Premium in several major markets, including Germany, Australia, and the US. This price hike, a $2 increase in July 2023, raises questions about the platform's strategy to encourage ad-free viewership.

YouTube's crackdown on ad blockers has taken several forms. In some cases, the platform has displayed warnings about breaching its terms of service. In more extreme measures, YouTube has prevented users from viewing further content unless they disable ad blockers. Additionally, the platform has implemented load delays, intentionally slowing down the website for users detected using ad blockers.

Users have reported a worsening situation with unskippable ads, some of which are inappropriate or even scammy, despite YouTube's censorship of certain words within content. This policy forces creators to use euphemisms for sensitive topics, complicating the discussion of serious issues. To bypass these ads, viewers resort to VPNs or content piracy, methods that do not financially support creators. So, there's a growing call for YouTube to find a balance that respects both users and content creators.

Public outcry on Reddit

On Reddit, the response to YouTube's ad blocker ban has been a mix of outrage and resignation. A post titled "Bye-bye YouTube" garnered an impressive 23k upvotes, echoing the sentiments of many users who feel pushed to the brink by the platform's aggressive ad policy. This is just one of numerous posts that have flooded the r/youtube subreddit, where the hottest topics are complaints about the platform's ad strategies.

Users are reporting an increasingly intrusive ad experience on YouTube. One user detailed an encounter with eight ads in a mere five-minute video, with each ad teasing a skip option only to lead to another ad. Such experiences, including offers of a 'free' ad-free experience with Premium, are fueling the frustration. These ads are often described as obscene, unmoderated, and sometimes even malicious, worsening the overall user experience on the platform.

Despite the loud outcry and evident frustration among users, YouTube's viewer base seems largely unaffected. While there was a noticeable dip in average views during the week of the stringent ad blocker policy enforcement in November 2023, the platform has since been on a steady growth trajectory.

Source: StreamCharts

Users’ response to the ban: find an ad blocker that works

Despite YouTube's crackdown on ad blockers, users haven't thrown in the towel just yet. Instead, they're getting creative, looking for new solutions that still do the trick. And finding software that works is one of them.

One such alternative gaining traction is Ghostery. Users report total ad elimination with this tool, indicating its effectiveness against YouTube's countermeasures. Despite Ghostery experiencing a fluctuation in downloads – with many uninstalls due to initial failures on YouTube – their persistence paid off. The desire for ad-free viewing was so strong that users flocked to Microsoft's Edge browser, known for its lower market share than Chrome, just to try out Ghostery. October saw a 30% surge in Ghostery installations on Edge, a clear sign of users' determination to find a working ad blocker.

Reddit, a hotbed for community solutions, has seen users recommending options like uBlockOrigin, quad9, and AdGuard. uBlockOrigin’s team, for instance, claims to have found a workaround to YouTube’s adblock ban, offering users a ray of hope in the ad-infested YouTube waters.

A recent survey sheds light on the broader user reaction to YouTube's adblock ban. While 22% of users are more inclined to use an ad blocker due to the crackdown, 16% plan to reduce their time on YouTube.

Paying for Premium: is it also an option?

Based on the same survey, only 12% are considering a switch to YouTube Premium.

Another poll by Android Authority reveals a telling preference among users. When asked whether they'd prefer to pay for an ad blocker that works on YouTube or for YouTube Premium, a whopping 77% of the 5460 respondents favored paying for ad blocker versus paying for Premium.

Source: Android Authority

While the general sentiment among users seems to lean against paying for YouTube Premium, the actual numbers tell a different story. In 2020, the platform had around 20 million paying users in the United States. Forecasts indicate a significant increase in this number, with an estimated 27.9 million paying subscribers by the end of 2024. So, despite many preferring a functional ad blocker over a Premium subscription, YouTube's Premium user base is on the rise.

Downloading content is another solution

The next option to combat recent YouTube policies, particularly popular amongst Redditors, is a DIY download-and-watch approach.

The creativity in these workarounds ranges from the humorous to the genuinely practical. One user suggests taking a screenshot every second of a video and playing it back in PowerPoint, highlighting the lengths to which viewers will go to avoid ads.

But there are also more practical tools like yt-dlp that are gaining traction. Though a command-line interface (CLI) tool, users find it manageable and effective for downloading videos for ad-free playback.

For those less tech-savvy, applications like YeetDL, iTubeGo, or 4K Video Downloader+ are stepping in. The last one got over 5 million new users in the last quarter of 2023.

All in all, the sentiment is clear: if YouTube is going to flood videos with ads, users will find a way around it.

YouTube's motivation: revenue for creators or …?

According to Forbes who got a statement from a YouTube representative, the move to combat ad blockers was meant to nurture the platform's creators. Ads, they claim, “support a diverse ecosystem of creators globally.” This perspective positions YouTube's actions as altruistic, aimed at ensuring creators receive fair compensation for their work.

However, the financial landscape for YouTube creators is filled with uncertainties. Ad earnings are influenced by numerous factors, such as viewer location and engagement with ads. The average YouTuber earns a modest $0.018 per view, equating to just $18 for every 1,000 views. This meager income is further jeopardized by YouTube's opaque policies, where videos can be demonetized on seemingly arbitrary grounds, causing significant income loss. Such instability forces creators to seek alternative revenue streams, like brand deals and donations, for a more reliable connection with their audiences.

Complicating matters are YouTube's censorship practices and demonetization policies. Creators often face demonetization for 'invalid traffic' or other vague reasons while ads continue to run on their content. For example, creator Aurelius Tjin reported a 90% drop in ad revenue due to invalid traffic claims, despite ads still appearing on his videos. Who's profiting from those?

Source: YouTube

Amidst these practices, Google, YouTube's parent company, reported a rise in ad revenue, with YouTube’s ad revenue climbing to $7.95 billion in the third quarter of 2023, up from $7 billion in 2022. This growth contrasts sharply with the challenges creators face in earning a stable income from the platform.

This discrepancy raises concerns about YouTube's commitment to truly supporting its creator community. I want to believe they really care.

Censorship and controversial ads

While YouTube tightens its grip on content under the guise of policy adherence, its ad vetting seems to follow a different, less scrutinized path.

YouTube's content policies have increasingly come under fire for what many see as overzealous censorship. Starting January 16, 2024, the platform plans to ban channels that depict victims of major violent events, a move that raises questions about the balance between sensitivity and historical documentation. Moreover, YouTube's commitment to removing content promoting "harmful conspiracy theories" for the 2024 election is stirring debates over who gets to define what constitutes a conspiracy theory.

YouTube's suspension of "Rising," produced by The Hill, and the demonetization of Russell Brand's channel for allegedly violating content policies, have fueled discussions about the platform's far-reaching control over creators' content and revenue.

It even led to legal repercussions. For instance, in Germany, the Regional Court of Cologne issued a preliminary injunction against YouTube for deleting a video related to COVID-19 without providing clear reasons, spotlighting the platform's opaque content moderation practices.

Compared to its strict content policies, YouTube's ad approach appears more lenient. Now, we are all poised to watch more ads. So, it’s only natural that Internet users report more and more inappropriate and misleading ads. From scam promotions impersonating Mr. Beast to unsettling ads that seem to promote cults (well, it’s the name of the store, but still nerve-wracking) or oversexualized content. Poor vetting process combined with the banning of ad blockers makes some question the platform’s commitment to maintaining a safe and trustworthy user environment.

Privacy and security concerns of ad blockers ban are real

When ad blockers are banned, users' privacy and security suffer. As the FBI warns, disabling ad blockers leaves internet users vulnerable to cybercriminals exploiting online ads to spread malware and steal personal information. Without ad blockers, YouTube's ad targeting systems access expansive data profiles to serve behavioral ads, despite ongoing controversies over illegal data collection from children.

The controversy is further fueled by YouTube's past legal troubles concerning data privacy. In a landmark case, Google and YouTube agreed to a $170 million settlement after being accused of violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The companies were charged with collecting personal information from children under the age of 13 without obtaining parental consent—a serious breach highlighting the platform's aggressive data collection practices, particularly aimed at young and vulnerable audiences.

The list of privacy-related lawsuits against YouTube does not end here. Since the platform’s update on its Terms of Service on January 5th, 2022, to prohibit ad blocking, privacy advocate Alexander Hanff argued such practices violate EU laws, filing complaints against YouTube's ad blocker ban in Ireland.

These incidents form a disturbing pattern that spotlights YouTube's prioritization of ad revenue over user privacy and safety. The platform's prohibition of ad blockers not only undermines users' ability to protect themselves from cyber threats—as emphasized by the FBI—but also raises questions about compliance with data protection regulations.

YouTube audience: will they Pay or Pirate?

Despite the public outcry over YouTube's crackdown on ad blockers, a survey revealed that 44% of users said the policy would not change their current platform usage. This statistic suggests a level of user apathy or acceptance toward advertising as the price of free content. Yet, it also highlights a segment potentially ripe for YouTube's subscription-based offerings, like YouTube Premium, which promises an ad-free experience.

Currently, the controversy surrounding YouTube's ad blocker policy hasn't translated into a notable decrease in its user base. Projections indicate a significant increase in the global number of YouTube users, expected to rise by 263 million (+30.29%) by 2028, reaching a new peak of 1.1 billion users.

The crackdown has led to some instances where YouTube has issued warnings to users advocating for ad blockers, as seen in a thread by a Reddit user, who received a prompt warning for suggesting using Firefox with an ad blocker. This raises another critical question: How far will YouTube go in enforcing its new policy, and will it actively penalize users who seek out or advocate for alternative ad-avoiding solutions? And will users' discontent grow so much so that we will see increased piracy or a shift towards alternative platforms that offer more control over the viewing experience? Time will show.

The platform's next moves—and its users' responses—will be a tale of modern consumer behavior worth watching.