On ad-blocking

Let’s talk ad-blocking.

With the arrival of iOS 9, ad-blocking is coming to mobile in a big way, and it’s causing a lot of talk all over the web. It is highlighting the internal struggle some feel about the practice, but also the hypocrisy of some of its staunchest proponents. So far, it seems like the real ‘bloodbath’ isn’t taking place where people thought it would be – namely, publishers – but among personalities.

Nilay Patel hits the nail on the head.

You might think the conversation about ad blocking is about the user experience of news, but what we’re really talking about is money and power in Silicon Valley. And titanic battles between large companies with lots of money and power tend to have a lot of collateral damage.

I alluded to this a few days ago. Patel later goes into specifics:

And with iOS 9 and content blockers, what you’re seeing is Apple’s attempt to fully drive the knife into Google’s revenue platform. iOS 9 includes a refined search that auto-suggests content and that can search inside apps, pulling content away from Google and users away from the web, it allows users to block ads, and it offers publishers salvation in the form of Apple News, inside of which Apple will happily display (unblockable!) ads, and even sell them on publishers’ behalf for just a 30 percent cut.

And this is it. The thing people need to realise about widespread ad-blocking is that it will not, in fact, force publishers to use better ad brokers, or push ad agencies to create better ads. Once an ad-blocker is turned on, nobody is going to turn it off. Once an ad-blocker is turned on, nobody is going to micromanage granular per-site or per-ad broker permissions. In other words, better ads are not a way to combat ad-blocking.

So, what is? How will publishers and ad brokers combat ad-blocking in an effective way? There will be two ways. First, by moving to proprietary, locked-down, vendor-controlled platforms like Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles, and whatever other equivalents Twitter and Google surely have or are working on. Within these platforms, you cannot block ads. Within these platforms, you have little to no choice. Within these platforms, revenue goes to the platforms’ owners. Within these platforms, independence is threatened.

Would you rather see ads on the independent news websites you love, or see news entirely dependent on the whims of the proprietary platforms delivering said news to you? If seeing a Samsung ad next to a Galaxy S6 review makes you uneasy, how do you feel about reading iPhone reviews in Apple News? If one makes you feel uneasy, but the other doesn’t, you’re a hypocrite.

The second method by which publishers and ad brokers will combat ad-blocking is by making ads harder to detect. We’ve already seen a huge increase in “advertorials”, ads written to look like regular editorial content. Right now, there will be tags or other markers to separate advertorial content from regular editorial content, but in the near future you can expect these borders to become ever more vague, until eventually, they’ll vanish altogether.

Yesterday, John Gruber wrote:

Good advertising goes down easy.

No, John. Good advertising will be invisible.

I don’t think “ethics” play a role in ad-blocking. It’s your internet connection, it’s your computer, it’s your browser, it’s your right to determine what gets displayed on, pushed to, or run on your device. Despite OSNews being a small publisher, I firmly believe in your right to block ads – even if that means OSNews has a harder time. In fact, I use ad-blockers myself.

I am not privy to OSNews’ finances, but I’m smart enough to understand that most likely, this site isn’t generating a whole lot of revenue. In fact, I’m pretty sure OSNews is costing its owner David Adams more to run than it delivers in revenue, and that there is a real chance that at some point in the (near?) future, David will decide that he is no longer willing to bear that financial burden (you could all become subscribers, by the way – a feature we don’t actually advertise). Yet, I am not comfortable with demanding or even asking anyone to give up their right to control what gets displayed on, pushed to, or run on your device, even if that negatively affects the future of OSNews.

Which is why this tweet from John Gruber sounds so incredibly grating to me.

The Deck is the small and secretive ad agency used by a number of popular websites and bloggers in the Apple community – including John Gruber himself. So, here we have one of the staunchest proponents of iOS 9’s ad blocker suddenly realising that his pet ad agency will also be blocked – therefore hurting his bottom line – and declaring that blocking the ads on his site is morally wrong.

The hypocrisy is so thick I need a plasma cutter.

Since The Deck is so secretive and exclusive, we really have no idea how it works. Heck, despite being an agency serving a number of incredibly popular websites, they are entirely invitation-only, and don’t even have a privacy policy. John Gruber can say The Deck is a “good” ad agency, but we only really have his word to go by. As a general member of the web-browsing public, I have no reason to trust The Deck any more than I would trust any other ad agency.

And then, yesterday, something incredibly interesting happened. A few days ago, Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper and friend of John Gruber and several prominent figures in the Apple community, and user of The Deck, released his own iOS 9 ad-blocker called Peace, available for $2.99. It became a monstrous success, sitting at number one in the App Store best-seller list for several days. There was only one problem.

Peace blocked The Deck.

Yesterday, after just a few days of sales, Arment pulled Peace from the App Store, stating it “just doesn’t feel good”.

Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.

Peace required that all ads be treated the same – all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white. This approach is too blunt, and Ghostery and I have both decided that it doesn’t serve our goals or beliefs well enough. If we’re going to effect positive change overall, a more nuanced, complex approach is required than what I can bring in a simple iOS app.

In other words, ad-blocking is totally fine, as long as it doesn’t harm people or things I care about.

Maybe, just maybe, people like John Gruber, Marco Arment, and others loudly cheering on ad-blocking should’ve thought a little bit longer and a little bit harder about what ad-blocking really means and just what collateral damage it’s causing. It’s easy for somebody like Gruber – who’s already earning hundreds of thousands of dollars every year through his popular, well-established website – to not care about smaller, less popular websites barely getting by, for whom widespread ad-blocking could mean the death-knell.

I don’t want OSNews to be dependent on proprietary, user-hostile platforms like Apple News or expensive and difficult-to-maintain mobile applications. I don’t want the web to balkanise even more than it already has. At the same time, I wish we could strike that perfect balance between ad obtrusiveness and user experience, but I am smart enough to realise that’s not going to happen any time soon. Ad-blockers surely won’t bring that ideal any closer, and in fact, I am convinced it will drive us towards an even bleaker future of proprietary, vendor-controlled platforms and invisible advertising.

All this being said, I do not have a solution. Like I stated earlier, I stand for everyone’s right to control what gets displayed on, pushed to, or run on their devices, but I do urge you to think about the consequences. Ad-blocking is not going to harm big, popular websites like The Verge, Ars Technica, Engadget and so on – these websites are all owned by major corporations with deep pockets and the means to find other revenue streams.

It will, however, harm the small websites you visit – small websites run by a few people from their proverbial basement, who may provide just as valuable writing or contribute just as much in other ways to your life as the major, well-known websites do. OSNews exists by the grace of its owner’s finances, but grace isn’t eternal.

Ad-blocking isn’t black and white.


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