Three, the mobile carrier, will trial a feature during the week of June 13 to block ads for subscribers in the United Kingdom. The test will last for 24 hours, during which the carrier will essentially flip a switch for subscribers who opt into the trial, and prevent some ads from being delivered to their mobile devices, without them having to install any ad-blocking software.
At first glance, it’s a powerful new weapon in the ad-blocking wars. But it may not be as effective as it sounds. The reason: A carrier with network-level ad-blocking software can only affect internet traffic that’s being delivered by its network—and carriers handle only a sliver of the data we consume on our mobile devices.
Cisco’s annual analysis of global internet traffic finds that carriers deliver just 4% of global internet traffic, compared with the 42% delivered over wifi. A study by research firm Analysys Mason shows that for smartphones specifically, 81% (4.5 GB a month) of traffic was carried by wifi networks in 2015, versus just 19% (1.1 GB monthly) carried by mobile networks.
The way Three is conducting its ad-blocking tests will further diminish the impact on subscribers. It’s using software from an Israeli startup called Shine. Although Shine won’t discuss how its technology works, citing the “high stakes” nature of the ad-blocking business, chief marketing officer Roi Carthy says the software can remove “an extraordinary amount” of advertising. But Shine says it can only block display ads within a phone’s browser and certain apps. Ads inside Facebook, for instance, aren’t affected by its technology.
Three says it is blocking ads in order to serve its subscribers better, so that they don’t have to waste time with pesky ads that are difficult to get rid of or bear the data costs of downloading ads they never asked for.
“The current ad model is broken,” Tom Malleschitz, Three’s chief marketing officer, said in the company’s announcement of the test feature. “It frustrates customers, eats up their data allowance and can jeopardise their privacy.”
But the need to monetize all that mobile traffic is only getting more urgent. Cisco estimates that by 2019, mobile data will account for 14% of all global internet traffic, an increase of 10 percentage points from 2014.
Shine has deployed its software with one other mobile carrier, Digicel, which is based in Jamaica and operates in 33 markets in the Caribbean, Central America, and the Pacific. Digicel blocked ads by default, telling subscribers to opt out if they were “happy to use more of [their] data for ads.” However, the company offered to serve ads from tech giants like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook if they shared revenue with Digicel.
Digicel says customers haven’t opted out. In the Cayman Islands—where roughly 30% of mobile users have 3G or 4G connections—only three subscribers opted out of ad-blocking in the first month it was activated late last year, Digicel says. (The company says all subscribers received a text message informing them that ad-blocking was in use, with instructions on how to opt out.)
But are carriers in a better position than consumers themselves to turn off the mobile advertising spigot?
That’s certainly not the view of Ghostery, which makes one of the most widely installed browser extensions for blocking ads and software that track user data. “If the carrier starts blocking indiscriminately, it also messes with the user experience,” says Scott Meyer, Ghostery’s CEO. “They might start having problems like they can’t get into [an online banking site], can’t get the weather, parts of a site don’t load. It’s a very blunt option.”