My colleagues Berin Szoka and Adam Thierer have written many times about the quid pro quo by which advertising supports free online content and services: somebody must pay for all the supposedly "free" content on the Internet. There is no free lunch!
Here are two two recent examples I came across of the quid pro quo being made very apparent to users.
Hulu. Traditionally, broadcast media has been a "two-sided" market: Broadcasters give away content to attract audiences, and broadcasters "sell" that audience to advertisers. The same is true for Internet video. But watching Hulu over the weekend, I noticed something interesting: Adblock Plus blocked the occasional Hulu ad but every time it did so, I was treated to 30 seconds of a black screen (instead of the normal 15 second ad) showing a message from Hulu reminding me that "Hulu's advertising partners allow [them] to provide a free viewing experience" and suggesting that I "Confirm all ad-blocking software has been fully disabled."
Although I use AdBlock on many newspaper websites (because I just can't focus on the articles with flashing ads next to the text), I would much rather watch a 15-second ad than wait 30 seconds for my show to resume. I think most users would feel the same way. We get annoyed by TV ads because they take up so much of our time. If Wikipedia is to be believed, there's now an average of 9 minutes of advertisements per half-hour of television. That's double the amount of advertising that was shown in the 1960s.
But online services such as Hulu show an average of just 37 seconds of advertising per episode. Amazingly, some shows garner ad rates 2-3 times higher than on prime-time television. Why might ad rates for online shows be higher? Because:
As for me, I've reconfigured Adblock Plus to not block ads on Hulu. But even if users like me don't block video ads on sites like Hulu, they may not be able to generate enough revenue to survive. Traditional media providers might be willing to cross-subsidize experiments in online video distribution for a while from offline revenue streams, but at some point, either online video will have to produce comparable revenue or the quality of content will deteriorate notably in the gradual shift to online distribution.
The problem is that, even if online video services can sell ad time for 3 times as much as broadcasters, because there is almost 15 times as much ad time on broadcast television than online services, the online service will still earn only 1/5 as much revenue as a traditional broadcaster. This is why online video is expected to drive adoption of personalized (or "behaviorally targeted") advertising: If online video programmers can target advertising to the individual user's likely interest, rather than to a crude profile of their likely audience, they can generate much higher revenue per ad because advertisers won't be wasting their ad budgets showing users ads for things they aren't interested in! The increased revenue for online content providers made possible by targeted advertising is the "mother's milk" that many websites need to survive.
Google Maps. On 8/25, Google announced that it had updated Google Maps for mobile to periodically report the user's location (based on the GPS chip in their device) back to Google. But before you reach for your tinfoil hats and start shouting about conspiracy theories, let me explain why this "tracking" is actually fantastic news for users:
In the Hulu example, the basic quid pro quo for getting all that free video programming is watching a few ads. It's possible for people to block the ads, but then they'll waste even more time looking at a black screen. That basic quid pro quo might prove insufficient to support the quality and quantity of video programming users want online, but without at least the basic quid pro quo of not blocking ads, video programming won't get past stage one.
In the Google Maps example, the quid pro quo for getting traffic data is sharing your location with Google. Users can still get the traffic data without sharing their location, but if everyone did that, there would be no traffic data. This highlights the problem of free-riding created by the no-cost opt-out: It's still possible to be a freeloader with both services, but if everyone did that, these services simply wouldn't survive.