How will ad-blocking software change the web-content industry?

Will ad-blocking kill the web?
Will ad-blocking kill the web?
Image: AP Photo/Richard Vogel
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On the last day of the June 2015 Developers’ Conference, Apple held a session (video here) to announce its “Content Blocking” feature:

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Observers weren’t fooled by the last-day session placement and careful euphemism (“content” means “ads”). True to the “if it bleeds, it leads” dictum, we were treated to the usual clamor, from accusations of short-sighted tactics—Apple is at war with Google and wants to monopolize mobile advertising with iAds; publishers will blacklist Safari on iOS9—to predictions of calamity—content blocking will upend the Web, your favorite webiste is about to die, content creators are under attack:

You realize that ‘bloat’ pays the salaries of editorial, product, design, video, etc etc etc, right?”

There were more moderate viewpoints, of course, but the congregants who assured us that ad blocking in iOS 9 won’t kill the web were fewer and quieter. Page-views, you know.

Initially, a few things jumped out at me.

First, although content blocking is available for iOS and OS X 10.11 (aka, El Capitan), the furor was concentrated almost entirely on mobile, a reflection of the dominant role of iDevices in Apple’s ecosystem. (A glance at the technical documentation shows us that content blocking extensions are actually easier to develop for the Macintosh than they are for the iPhone and iPad).

Second, the conjectured content blockers won’t be Apple products; they’ll be created and offered (whether free or for a price) by independent developers. You may quibble with the use of  “independent —the App Store judges will intervene, as usual—but we should expect a flurry of creative ad-blocking code followed by a round of noisy arguments accusing developers of attempting to destroy barely solvent Web publishers.

Third, in their entre nous concentration on advertisers, developers, publishers, Apple vs. Google, the commentariat disregarded the benefits of content blocking for mere users, the unwashed masses who supply the industry with their life-giving fluids of money and personal data.

The absence didn’t last long. In two previous Monday Notes (“News Sites Are Fatter and Slower Than Ever” and “20 Home Pages, 500 Trackers Loaded: Media Succumbs to Monitoring Frenzy”), my compadre Frédéric Filloux cast a harsh light on bloated, prying pages. Web publishers insert gratuitous chunks of code that let advertisers vend their wares and track our every move, code that causes pages to stutter, juggle, and reload for no discernible reason. Even after the page has settled into seeming quiescence, it may keep loading unseen content in the background for minutes on end.

In a blog post titled “An hour with Safari Content Blocker in iOS 9,” mobile-software developer Dean Murphy showed how a simple iOS 9 ad-blocker that he wrote made a dramatic before-and-after difference:

Before (left) and after (right)
Before (left) and after (right)

With content blocking turned on, the page loaded in two seconds instead of eleven. Once loaded, network activity ceased, which means less strain on the battery.

Another developer, Paul Hudson, provides a calm explanation of what Apple actually announced, and proceeds to an example that blocks a daily newspaper he doesn’t seem to like—“How to write a content blocker extension in 10 minutes (and never see the Daily Mail again)”. No need to dive in if geeky JSON talk doesn’t float your boat, but Hudson’s conclusions are worth contemplating (emphasis mine):

“Safari content blocking is a huge innovation: the fact that the system can optimize the rules ahead of time rather than trying to interact with an extension is a huge win for performance. Then of course there’s privacy: no one needs to know what web pages you visit, which is just how it should be.”

Publishers, of course, blame the performance problems on mobile browsers (from The Verge):

“… web browsers on phones are terrible. They are an abomination of bad user experience, poor performance, and overall disdain for the open web that kicked off the modern tech revolution. Mobile Safari on my iPhone 6 Plus is a slow, buggy, crashy affair, starved for the phone’s paltry 1 GB of memory and unable to rotate from portrait to landscape without suffering an emotional crisis. Chrome on my various Android devices feels entirely outclassed at times, a country mouse lost in the big city, waiting to be mugged by the first remnant ad with a redirect loop and something to prove.”

Such blame-shifting didn’t sit well with informed users. One drew a diagram contrasting the almost 1000:1 ratio between the 8 KB of actual content in the article quoted above, and the 6 MB of bloat that’s actually loaded:

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Another blogger went into even greater detail by documenting the 263 HTTP requests and 9.5 MB needed to load the page:

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As the author calculates, if you have a 1 GB/month mobile data plan, going to the site three times a day will exhaust your data budget—and place you in the caring hands of 22 flavors of spyware.

I empathize with smaller publishers who feel they can’t survive without using modern, sophisticated, and intrusive advertising and tracking tools. In a piece titled “Content blockers, bad ads, and what we’re doing about it,” Rene Ritchie, who heads the iMore site, explains how this technology has lead publishers like him to lose control (emphasis mine):

“When we do get good ads, as soon as they finish their allotted impressions, they go away, and the ad spot gets back-filled with ‘remnants’ which get progressively worse and worse the more we refresh the site.

Yes, we’re well aware of how insane that sounds.

We also have no ability to screen ad exchange ads ahead of time; we get what they give us. We can and have set policies, for example, to disallow autoplay video or audio ads. But we get them anyway, even from Google. Whether advertisers make mistakes or try to sneak around the restrictions and don’t get caught, we can’t tell. It happens, though, all the time.”

You can’t blame the browser, it’s the way the system has evolved in the Web advertising race to the bottom. Back when physical newspapers were still vital, advertising space was limited and thus prices were well-behaved and constant. No such thing on the web, where the “ad inventory” tends to infinity. As a result, prices fall, sites need more ads to stay afloat, and they must consent to exploitative practices.

A few days ago, Charles Arthur addressed the subject on his site The Overspill: “The adblocking revolution is months away (with iOS 9)—with trouble for advertisers, publishers and Google”. The post makes a tart statement regarding the entitlement of today’s Web publishers, some of whom cast themselves as part of the august but beleaguered Fourth Estate:

“Print-based organisations were told they needed to evolve, and stop being such dinosaurs, because the web was where it was at…Why should web advertisers be immune from evolutionary or revolutionary change in user habits? …[A]ny argument that tries to put a moral dam in front of a technological river is doomed. Napster; Bittorrent; now adblocking.”

When Arthur was questioned about his responsibility, as a journalist himself, to accede to the trackers in order to ensure the future of “quality media and journalism”, his response was unequivocal (emphasis mine):

“Have I any responsibility to them? Well, not really. Certainly as a standard reader, here’s what happened: I accepted an invitation to read an article, but I don’t think that we quite got things straight at the top of the page over the extent to which I’d be tracked, and how multiple ad networks would profile me, and suck up my data allowance, and interfere with the reading experience. Don’t I get any say in the last two, at least?”

We come here to the crux of the matter: Trust.

We feel cheated and rightly so. As users, we understand that we’re not really entitled to free browsing; we pay our bills with our selves: When the product Is free, we are the product. The problem is that we feel betrayed when we find out we’ve been overpaying. We’re being exploited—and it’s not even done nicely. (Apply your favorite metaphor, here.)

Losing trust is bad for the bottom line—no economy can function well without it. When you lose the consumer’s trust, you’re condemned to a chase for the next wave of suckers. Even sites that get us to pay for access to their content play questionable advertising and tracking games.

Publishers who rise to condemn new (and still unproven) ad-blocking features on iOS and OS X ought to ask themselves one question: Who needs whom the most?

Apple’s move answers the question. No need to think it’s building ad-blocking technology to monopolize the field to the benefit of its iAd platform whose revenue can’t “move the needle” for a company where revenue and profits mostly come from hardware (see the last 10-Q report page 25). Apple’s “ulterior” motive is making everyday use of its products more pleasant, resulting in more sales: the usual ecosystem play.

It’ll be interesting to watch what happens on Android. Will Google help developers with ad-blocking tools to improve the mobile experience and protect privacy?