February 12, 1998 1:25 PM PST

Filter seeks to block banner ads

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Solid Oak, the company known for its sometimes controversial practice of filtering for smut on the Internet, is giving its customers a tool to screen out another enemy: banner ads.

"We've had a lot of requests from our customers," Brian Milburn, president of the company that produces the Cybersitter filtering product, said today.

Mostly, he said, he was responding to his 1.2 million customers, many of whom use older computers with slow Internet connections that make viewing banner ads a time-intensive task.

Although the program is not yet perfect, Milburn said Solid Oak decided it was such a compelling issue that he would release it now.

Any of Cybersitter's current customers will get an automatic update that allows them to filter out banner ads.

He said that it will work with 80 percent to 90 percent of banners, and he first targeted banners on search engines and free email services such as Hotmail.

The filters don't actually remove the ad, but instead remove the picture--the graphical file that can be large and can slow the browsing experience, especially for those who surf on dial-up Internet connections from home. The effect is similar to turning off one's images while browsing. But this filter only turns off images from banner ads, he said.

"It takes a long time to load the pages for a lot of people, since some of these places have five banners on their page and they're animated," Milburn said. "Someone on a 14.4 or 28.8 modem--it takes them five minutes to load the page. It still leaves any text in there but it removes the banner so you're not having to look at the banner and you're not having to download these large graphics."

This is not the first time someone has introduced technology designed to filter out banner ads.

And while one might presume that advertisers would be concerned about the introduction of the technology to such a large customer base, Rich LeFurgy, president of the Internet Advertising Bureau, isn't worried.

"We've seen this before, about a year ago," he said. "There was another company whose entire claim to fame was the ability to filter out advertising. Frankly, they've gone off the radar.

"I would expect that this feature would suffer similar fate because one of the things that people are missing is that advertising provides value to consumers--it always has and always will," he added.

In other words, he said, while a lot of people complain about advertising, not everyone hates it.

Plus, he added, Web surfers have entered into an implied--and sometimes implicit--contract with content providers that they will accept ads in exchange for content, much in the same way television viewers accept commercials in exchange for free programming.

If something like this did work, and surfers did filter out advertising, "It will kill the goose that laid the golden eggs. The reason search engines and free email are free is because of the advertising value," he said.

At the same time, LeFurgy acknowledged that some people don't like ads because they are too large.

Advertisers are constantly trying to reach that balance between delivering compelling ads and delivering files that are too large, he said.

Most sites, however, have policies that expressly prohibit ads that are larger than 12K to 15K. He added that advertisers are working on technology that would deliver ads according to the type of computer, browser, and connection that individual surfers use.

But LeFurgy said even with so many Cybersitter customers, he wasn't worried about the impact. "If we talk in a month and there's been a significant amount of usage, that will be another story."

However, he added, "I think what you'll find is the hating of ads is exaggerated."

"If in fact we're dealing with a speed issue, that will need to be addressed," he said. "In the big scheme of things I believe we are at the right balance...But to selectively turn off ad graphics and not turn off total graphics isn't really living up to implicit consumer agreement that, 'I'll look at ads as a tradeoff for getting free content.'"

 

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