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18 September 2015updated 21 Sep 2015 8:59am

Journalists, welcome to the adblocker apocalypse

Apple's new operating system allows users to easily block ads on mobile, just as it launches its own news app. For the digital media, this is nothing short of a disaster. 

By Barbara Speed

Imagine you regularly walk into shops and steal chocolate bars, cans of soup, small items of makeup. You’ve done it for years – all your friends do it too, and you’ve all agreed that it’s probably fair enough. Those companies make loads of money. They wouldn’t have those self-checkout machines if they didn’t want people to steal. 

Then imagine that a handbag manufacturer started selling bags specifically designed to help you do it. “Hidden pockets!”, their labels exclaim. “Includes wire cutters to remove security tags!”

But let’s get to the point: this week, Apple released a new iPhone operating system, iOS 9, which allows you to block ads on its web browser Safari, with the help of apps which have since zoomed to the top of the Apple Store charts. The questions we’re left with are these: how much do we equate what they’re doing with the parallel situation above? Is blocking ads while you view online content stealing? And what should media producers do about it? 

Adblocking is already very common on desktop computers, but Apple’s new features represent the first big breakthrough in terms of mobile adblocking. For readers, they’re an attractive proposition: the apps will prevent auto-load ads draining phones’ battery life and users’ data allowance, and will offer them a cleaner reading experience. Some, like third-party app Peace (currently number one on the app store) will also prevent sites from collecting your data. For media companies, however, income from mobile browsing – which is rapidly gaining on web browsing in terms of popularity, and, until now, offered untrammeled access to ad revenue – is now under threat in a big way. 

Those who build adblockers can see this, but their response is basically that if media companies can’t host ads readers actually want to see, then they need to rethink their strategy. Marco Arment, creator of the Peace app, said on its website that he views as a necessary counter to the culture of large, invasive web advertisements:

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New, browser-level countermeasures are needed to protect us from today’s web abuses.

And we shouldn’t feel guilty about this. The “implied contract” theory that we’ve agreed to view ads in exchange for free content is void because we can’t review the terms first — as soon as we follow a link, our browsers load, execute, transfer, and track everything embedded by the publisher. Our data, battery life, time, and privacy are taken by a blank check with no recourse. It’s like ordering from a restaurant menu with no prices, then being forced to pay whatever the restaurant demands at the end of the meal.

There is no legal precedent for banning adblockers. In Germany, several broadcasters have sought to ban AdBlock Plus, the popular desktop browser extension, multiple times, but have failed. At the close of the most recent court case in May, an AdBlock Plus spokesperson celebrated the win, but also noted that the company aims to “work with publishers, advertisers and content creators to encourage non-intrusive ads, discover new ways to make ads better and press forward to a more sustainable internet ecosystem”. In the end, adblockers allow readers to control their browsing experience, and an outright ban on them could have disturbing implications for governments’ control over our computer use. 

So what are the options for content producers, post iOS 9? Mobile news apps allow companies to dodge Safari’s adblocking capabilities, and data shows that consumers actually prefer reading news on apps, rather than browsers. However, this only applies to big, legacy news organisations that can lure readers to a standalone app.

Then there are other revenue streams. News sites including the Guardian and Washington Post (and, soon, the New Statesman) detect whether readers are using adblockers and generate a pop-up, asking readers to pay for their journalism by donating. In the past week, the Washington Post has gone a step further, and has banned readers using adblockers from viewing their content at all as part of a “short test” to see how readers respond to the block. If all big news organisations did this, users might think twice about using adblockers – but, as paywall news sites have learned to their peril, there will always be a site willing to give away similar content for free. Equally, adblockers may well soon find ways to scale the walls media organisations erect against them. 

It’s worth noting that there may be more to Apple’s move than a crusade against terrible ads. Apple’s new operating system doesn’t just offer ad-blocking services – it also comes pre-loaded with the company’s new News app, which will offer content from Apple’s “partner” news sites. Quite the coincidence. Meanwhile, rival tech company Google is unlikely to endorse adblocking anytime soon, as so much of its revenue is based on selling ads on its own pages. In fact, Google-owned YouTube is now forcing adblocker users to watch the full ads which play before videos, and denying them access to the “skip ad” button which appears to most viewers after a few seconds.This attitude could drive users away from Google’s products and towards Apple’s.

Apple isn’t the only tech company that stands to benefit from the rise of adblocking. Tech writer Casey Johnson argued in an Awl piece this week that “ad-blocking, insofar as it contributes to the decimation of advertising revenues, will hasten [the] exodus” to platforms like Facebook and Snapchat, where publishers can directly publish their content, and where most ads (especially native ones) run inside the apps or sites in a way that is not blocked by adblockers. As Johnson also points out, this effect would largely undermine the crusading, privacy-oriented tone used by some adblocker designers:

Driving publishers to Facebook will not get rid of invasive trackers; it’s only declaring allegiance to the most comprehensive one, which has bought data from brokers with hundreds of millions of consumer profiles, and whose privacy policy doesn’t prevent it from selling users’ data, as long as it is anonymized (a process widely considered insufficient for privacy protection).

Advertisers already try to dictate what publications can and can’t publish – just imagine what tech companies who directly host and distribute journalism could do. 

Apple’s move is just another which puts journalism at the mercy of giant tech companies. The consumption of media is already dictated by the whims of Google’s algorithm, with publications forced to redesign sites and tweak content to ensure they rank highly and are indexed by the search engine. Apple, notorious in the industry for its fanged response to attacks in the press, will now select its own news for readers via its news app. And media producers may now be forced to turn to social media sites like Facebook, where adblockers have less power, to market or even publish their content. 

When taken apart, these problems may seem manageable. Lumped together, they could well constitute a long-running threat to the freedom of the press.

Update, 18/9: Marco Arment has announced he is pulling the Peace adblocker from the app store. He released this statement on his website: 

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.

Those already using the app will be able to continue, but Arment won’t release any fixes or updates.

Arment goes on to advise users to use competitor blocking apps like Purify or Crystal instead.

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