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Is Ad-Blocking Good For The Web?

6 min read

A slew of thoughts around content-blocking (née ad-blocking). Why now? well Apple.

I've been having those hipster feelings about privacy, – I was into protecting my privacy before Apple told me it was cool – but I realised that it was at worst wrong, and best irrelevant to anything. But it did kick me into action of writing them down.

So: Apple is giving programmatic access to let developers control the loading of images and scripts while the user is using the built in web browser.

The press are going crazy about this, because they have skin in the game: almost all mainstream news outlets on the web are funded by running ads next to the journalism.

Much of the accepted timeline of events draws a straight line from:

* fewer ads been shown
* fewer ads been clicked on (and paid for)
* less money going to individual news sites
* fewer journalists making their living from journalists
* less informed population with less diverse set of view points.
* functional democracy becomes impossible without an informed electorate

I will take it as axiomic that a functional democracy is a necessity.

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At this point it should be mandatory to disclose my use or not of content-blockers.

I moved from Opera to Firefox in 2003? to take be able to use an ad-blocker. The web is not tolerable without it.

The browser is the user's agent that loads content from the web. How the user configures her agent is up to her.

Anyone insisting that I not use a content-blocker is like telling me how I should eat a Creme Egg.

My employer gets most of its money from 'clients', who make most of their money selling ads and displaying ads.

Apple makes almost nothing from ads, and claims the side of the user, and has a relationship with the user at the exact place ad-blocking would be possible.

iOS9, dubbed by no-one, the ad-pocolypse, brings ad-blocking to Mobile Safari.

However, it has stopped short of implementing an 'ad-blocker', but given app developers access to Safari's content loading pipeline.

So, questions here for Apple Kremlinologists, interesting, but unanswerable:

* why did Apple do anything to do with content-blocking?
* why did Apple not do an Apple blessed ad blocker, instead of API access.

My guess, for the record: pro-user-experience reasons & anti-Google & Facebook strategic reasons.

I think the second question is more interesting than the first, but still not that interesting. For the record: a combination of resourcing, legal and app ecosystem reasons.

None of those reasons about Apple are for the benefit of the web.

I'm sure one may look back when it all turned out ok and say that Apple foresaw all this, and that came into the reasoning of doing content-blocking; but I think that's a stretch.


But is it, you know, good for the web? Or better, how will all that content on the web be paid for, if not by ads.

The most important thing in the short term to say about this is this:

* it is off by default.

The second most important things in the short term is this:

* the user has to find and install an app from the app store.

Every single tap that the user has to do in order to start using it will see a proportionate drop off in user uptake.

My prediction is that large ad-driven sites will report that content-blocker usage will be perceptibly small to neglible in comparison to the rest of their traffic. In the short term.

So what happens next? Users don't like ads, People who put stuff on the web need to get paid.

Back when napster was new and record companies were claiming a drop in sales because of it, the popular comeback was 'The internet is here to stay, don't fight it. Find new business models to work with it.'

That, and people want things for free, are the only similarities between file-sharing and content-blocking.

The ramifications, the finding of new business models, are still playing out, as the pre-internet content-businesses meet the internet and find that their previous business models don't work or can't work online.

So what future can I see, which is good for the web and better for users than megabytes of ad-tech for bytes of content?

The set of perverse incentives needs to be straightened out so all the goodies pull together.

It is clear that the publisher, who has no desire to manage an ad inventory, has lost control of the code that actually runs on your browser in their page.

For 'publisher' I mean anyone putting your words or images or video or sound or whatever on a webpage. That might be you, but it might be Flickr.

The publisher may have had a few granular switches to throw, but have ceded editorial control of what ads are displayed next to their content.

Publishers, if they're not already, need to demand better tools from their ad-networks and ad-exchanges. They need to start pushing the worst offending ad-networks off their rosters.

@jeffjarvis believes that the publishers should be owning the relationship with their reader or viewer. I agree, and that the first thing they need to do make sure we're only shown ads that are in-keeping with their editorial and/or brand voice.

This all pre-supposes that running ads next to your content /is/ a viable way of running a business on the internet.

Online advertising has just discovered another sets infinite of billboards which can have ads on: video, snapchat, vine. More effective ads, unblockable ads.

The pool of global online advertising spend is not going to grow as fast as the number of billboards: payout for ads are decrease, and will continue to decrease.

There is a bunch more to write about funding of online news (an important subset of news); how Facebook, Apple, Google and Twitter are stripping out the ads for their own News offerings.

There's more to discuss about what news needs from those platforms and the ad-networks themselves, but that'll wait for another post, here or some place else on the web.