The New York Times features an article – Whiting Out the Ads, but at What Cost? – covering the growing debate about a new Firefox add-in called AdBlock Plus.

Briefly, AdBlock Plus is an enhancement that allows users to effortlessly block ‘undesired’ content displayed within web pages. Primarily used for blocking banners and rich-media advertising, the add-in allows you to simply right-click on any web page element and add its details to AdBlock Plus’ filter. Henceforth, web elements served up from the original publisher of the blocked content (e.g. advertising serving sites) will not be downloaded. Adblock Plus also offers a subscription service, which regularly updates your filters to block known sources of advertising content.

AdBlock Plus is by no means unique. Banner ad blocking tools were created soon after the first banners started to appear. Nor is it ubiquitous. The tool is only available for Firefox and Mozilla browsers, which have a relatively small installed-base.

However, it has drawn fresh attention to the vulnerability created by the growing dominance of the advertising-supported business model, particularly in the so-called ‘Web 2.0 space’. AdBlock Plus is gaining a lot of profile given the disproportionate adoption rates of Firefox among younger ‘early adopters’, the most active users on social networks and similar sites.

Those who condemn AdBlock Plus, and similar tools, do so in very strong terms. They claim that tools such as AdBlock Plus ‘infringe’ the rights of web site owners, and that users who install and use it are ‘stealing’. WhyFirefoxIsBlocked provides a summary of the position taken by AdBlock Plus opponents.

Once again, we are witnessing how an established, powerful, profitable industry responds to discontinuous innovation.

While involving different players, the fundamental issues here are no different to the issues at the centre of the battles between the music industry and digital music formats, the movie industry and P2P distribution platforms, and (for those with a longer view of history), the battle between the movie industry and VCR vendors, the music industry and cassette recorder vendors, the software industry and CDROM burner vendors…the list goes on.

This is not a technology debate. It is about changing consumer preferences and consequential changes to behaviours. The emergence, and the adoption, of tools like AdBlock Plus are a clear sign that some consumer segments find current approaches to online advertising distasteful. Enduring undesired, untargeted and (in many cases) obnoxious advertising has led consumers to seek a solution to their pain. The solution they have found is intelligent ad blocking software.

The online advertising industry faces a clear choice.

It can ignore the overwhelming evidence provided by recent history that trying to halt consumer adoption of a discontinuous innovation is as futile as King Canute’s attempts to turn back the incoming tide. If it chooses this path, it will no doubt resort to the standard toolbox – threats of litigation, lobbying for legislative changes, seeking to implement hardware over-rides etc. But it will lose. In the interim, the level of uncertainty such a campaign creates will no doubt send many new and established ventures that are reliant upon an ad-supported revenue model to the wall, and it will dampen investment interest in new ventures that are similarly vulnerable.

Alternatively, the online advertising industry can recognise that the adoption of tools such as AdBlock PLus by these technologically-adept consumers is a sign that current approaches to online advertising isn’t appealing to a sizeable portion of consumers. Given this, it should immediately investigate the true causes of this alienation and seek to embrace innovation itself as a solution to this issue. I strongly suspect there are even greater profits to be made in pursuing such a strategy.