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IAB Research – What Would an Internet Without Targeted Ads Look Like?

Amid critical EU policy discussions about the future of Europe’s digital economy, new research commissioned by IAB Europe has revealed Europeans’ strong appreciation of how advertising enables the internet they use every day. And the reality is that the internet they value – the diverse universe of small publishers and other content and services, beyond closed self-sustaining digital ecosystems, that we all consult dozens of times per day – needs targeted ads alongside non-targeted or “contextual” ones.


The study was commissioned by IAB Europe and conducted by an independent, third-party research agency, Savanta, in December 2020. The study used a 10-minute online survey of internet users over the age of 18, with the distribution of gender, age, region and socio-economic group weighted to the population of each country. Over 400 adult internet users were surveyed in each of six European countries, with a total sample size of 2,439

Executive Summary 

This report presents the key findings of the research IAB Europe commissioned to better understand the user sentiment towards the ad-supported internet amidst critical EU policy discussion about the future of Europe’s digital economy. In particular, investigating the types of content and services that Europeans would be willing to pay for, and those that would be left struggling to find a sustainable commercial model. It demonstrates that users value being able to access online content and services for free alongside the ones they are willing to pay for, and they want to be able to decide for themselves how they allocate their budgets.

It shows how the experience of the internet in Europe would change dramatically if advertiser funding were no longer sustainable. In this scenario, a large proportion of current web content and services would be in danger of disappearing because they would be uneconomical to deliver, or would be forced into a commercial model where they were only available to a minority of users for a price that others find unacceptable or unaffordable. News content sites, in particular, would see their reach and influence significantly reduced. Citizens would be unable to access high-quality online content without paying a subscription, and this would result in unequal access to information and increased polarisation between income groups. The inability to leverage a viable advertising-funded model raises particular challenges for start-up news and content services, which have not yet had the chance to establish their value to users and convince them to pay a subscription fee. Scaling up new services is difficult or impossible without advertising revenue.

For the vast majority of European citizens, the trade-offs that create this fragmented, partial experience of the internet would be unjustified. They value the targeted advertising that supports the current commercial model of the internet – and they value being able to choose between the experiences they would like to pay for and those that they can experience for free as a result of advertising.

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