While some of the issues relating to monetization these days are purely about a lack of disclosure and honesty, discussing what qualifies as “advertising” misses the point. The reason we have these questions at all is that some people are deeply uncomfortable and embarrassed about what they do. And this is what causes them to play hard and loose with the facts.
Whether we call affiliate links “advertising” or “marketing” or “fee splitting” or “working for a commission as an employee” isn’t terribly important. They represent a paid compensation scheme and therefore should be disclosed. Common sense dictates this and the law reflects it.
Selling a list of your subscribers’ email addresses doesn’t sound like advertising or marketing or fee splitting or working for a commission, but it certainly is a way of making money off your content indirectly. The same applies to selling other data about how users interact with your site. I suppose you could sell these things and still say your site is “ad-free,” but so what? If being “ad-free” is just about the distraction problem however you care to define it, then I guess you’ve solved it.
A lot of people want to produce content. Some portion of these people want to make money off the content they produce. There’s two fundamentally different ways, traditionally, they could do this: off the content itself or through what the content could do. This is the real split: not between “businesses” and “pan-handling,” but between people who treat content as an end and people who treat content as a means to an end. Asking for user payment, while still making content available without payment, is sometimes labelled “donations,” but this misses the key idea. The key characteristic here, assuming no other monetization schemes are present, is that the content is the product. Period.
So, if you’re trying to make money, but you’re not selling your content “as the thing itself,” you’re using it “as a thing for something else.”
And some people are fine with this. They’re happy their content is good/popular/deceptive enough to allow it to drive lots of commission through the purchases it produces or substantial revenue from accompanying advertising or as self-promotion for paid-speaking or whatever. Some people are not fine with this. They want any money they get through their content to be from what the content alone imparts to its audience.
The problem is with people who are embarrassed about their work being a means versus an end. And this is what drives people to want to tell stories or play loose with the truth or fail to make disclosures or come up with rationalizations or just lie. But you don’t get to have it both ways. You’re either purely serving your audience or you’re serving them and using your content to use them. You can’t be doing both. So, either stop doing what you’re doing, stop being embarrassed or continue being embarrassed and just be honest with yourself and everyone else about what’s actually going on.