How Much Does It Cost To Browse the Internet, Ad-Free?

Nothing makes me give up on a website faster than seeing every available space on the page filled with ads. If the article I am reading is interesting enough, I’ll try to continue reading only to find that I have to scroll past a large ad every paragraph or two and then try to figure out if the text that I am reading is part of the original article, or ad copy. When the popups asking me to subscribe start, I’m out.

Economics was my worst subject in college, but it seems to me there must be a diminishing return for all of that advertising. If people bail before reading the article, let alone the ads, how can the site be worth advertising on?

I was thinking about this, and as my thoughts wandered, I began to think about cable TV. When I was a kid, there were 3 network channels, and UHF. Cable was a new phenomenon when I was 9 or 10 years old. The thing about some of the channels (like early HBO) that impressed me was that you could watch movies without commercials. Sure, you paid a monthly fee for that privilege, but it seemed moderate enough (to my 10-year-old self) to make skipping the commercials worthwhile.

I also recall the early days of the Internet, which came into its own in 1994, the same time I graduated from college and began my career. Back then, there wasn’t much advertising on websites. Indeed, for a time it seemed anathema. I remember sometime in the late 1990s, when I first saw a Yahoo! commercial on television, and thought, Wow, they have the kind of money to buy a television spot? In those days, you didn’t have to worry about pages filled with ads. You just hand to be careful of the blinking text that was all the rage for a time as people learned to use HTML.

The early days of Facebook also seem, in my memory, to be relatively ad-free, at least compared to today. I suppose that is the classic bait-and-switch of these services: grab you with the services, and then start putting ads in front of you if you want to continue using it–which, of course, many people do. A few months ago, I wondered why Facebook and other social media companies didn’t offer an ad-free version, one in which users would subscribe to via a monthly or annual fee. Imagine what it would be like to use these services without ads. After a few minutes thought (I was walking through the park and clearly remember where I was as I pondered this), I realized that social media companies must make far more money off showing ads to individuals than the would from any reasonable subscription fee that those individuals could pay.

Isaac Asimov, in his science essays, would occasionally explore extremes. I especially loved those essays: what’s the smallest possible distance? The largest? The coldest temperature that can exist? The hottest? It was a thought experiment as much as anything, and thinking of those essays made me wonder: is it possible to estimate how much it would cost the average individual to browse the Internet, completely ad-free? It doesn’t matter what the the answer is. What matters is the possibility of calculating it. I did some rough browsing on this question (seeing plenty of ads in the process) and didn’t come up with much. The cost questions center around how much ad companies make on people, or how much access to the Internet costs. Neither of those is what I am interested in.

Put another way: for the Internet to continue to have new content in much the same way it does today, but to be entirely ad-free, how much would access cost an individual? I imagine it would require calculating profits of countless companies and then dividing that number by total Internet users. What would the order of magnitude be for, say, one month of ad-free Internet browsing? Would it be $50/month per person? $500/month? $5,000/month?

I guess I’d like to know the answer, because once I know it, I’d wonder if it would be worth paying.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

2 thoughts on “How Much Does It Cost To Browse the Internet, Ad-Free?

  1. I agree. I’ve stopped going to sites that run a paragraph of copy, then force you to wade through an ocean of ads. Re Facebook, what amazes me is the number of bogus ads allowed. I’m on a one-person crusade against these–the $19 electric bicycle, $60 trailer and, lately, the $92 Rolex. These fallacious come-ons must have cost FB people millions of dollars, and there’s no recourse. I once wrote a long email to FB powers-that-be on the subject and never got a response.

  2. I dropped one of my favorite sites every because the content would shift up and down while I was trying to read because they had big banner ads. That being said I work for a company that gets a fair amount of revenue from ads so I can’t really talk, can I?

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