AdBlock Found Some Ads It Actually Liked, and Ran Them, for Amnesty International

Preaching an anti-censorship message

AdBlock users were probably pretty surprised on Saturday to see actual ads appear—instead of the blank spaces they're used to—in the banner slots on webpages. That's because AdBlock found an ad campaign whose ideology it could get behind.

The occasion was World Day Against Cyber Censorship. To mark the day, AdBlock agreed to partner with Amnesty International to replace regular Internet ads not with blank placeholders but with anti-censorship ads from Amnesty—featuring Edward Snowden, Pussy Riot and Ai Wei Wei, who were also partners on the campaign.

The ads were served to more than 50 million users worldwide, according to the agency behind the campaign, Colenso BBDO in Auckland, New Zealand.

The ads also feature the type of content that would normally be censored in many countries. Indeed, the majority of clicks on the banners—which linked through to full content on Amnesty International sites—came from Russia, a country listed by Reporters Without Borders as an "enemy of the Internet," Colenso BBDO said.

The project might seem like an odd one for AdBlock, which is, after all, dedicated to not serving any ads at all. Gabriel Cubbage, CEO of AdBlock, said as much in a statement for the new campaign.

"People use AdBlock for a number of reasons but ultimately no one except you has the right to control what shows up on your screen, or who has access to the contents of your hard drive," he said. "Not the websites, not the advertisers, not the ad blockers. And not your government, either."

The Amnesty ads are apparently an exception because they argue for much the same thing that AdBlock wants—an Internet free of meddling by authorities. Amnesty and AdBlock just come at the issue from opposite sides: Amnesty is opposed to having wanted content blocked; AdBlock is opposed to having unwanted content served.

Where they overlap is that online ads also allow users' movements to be tracked, which Amnesty also opposes as unwanted surveillance.

"Some states are engaged in Orwellian levels of surveillance, particularly targeting the lives and work of the people who defend our human rights—lawyers, journalists and peaceful activists," Salil Shetty, International Secretary General at Amnesty International, said in a statement. "This continuing development of new methods of repression in reaction to increased connectivity is a major threat to our freedom of expression."

Shetty added: "The world was too lax about the impact of the Internet on privacy and free speech. We now need a radically new approach to protecting online rights, before the next wave of disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence."

The banners were translated into six languages and became a global trending topic on Facebook, the agency said. Cubbage, the CEO of AdBlock, also wrote at length about the campaign here.