Included in the latest launch of Apple’s smartphone operating system, called iOS9, is the highly controversial ability to installad-blocking apps. What is seemingly just one of a long list of new features, this new ability has the publishing world in a spin because it allows its users to prevent ads from being displayed.
What on the surface appears as an innocuous boon for trimming the clutter from mobile sites, and reducing the file size, has instead blown up as potentially ruinous to online publishers who make their income from advertising.
By including ad-blocking apps in its Safari mobile browser, Apple has turned this practise, usually only used by geeks on desktop browsers, into a mainstream phenomenon. It already has a name: “ad-block apocalypse”.
As this story exploded over the last few weeks, the New York Times “measured the mix of advertising and editorial on the mobile home pages of the top 50 news websites – including ours – and found that more than half of all data came from adsand other content filtered by ad blockers”.
More than half. That’s sobering. And expensive. For consumers such blockers can have direct cost-saving benefits. “Visiting the home page of Boston.com every day for a month would cost the equivalent of about $9.50 in data usage just for theads,” the NYT reported. Without an ad blocker, there were 389 files, which used 16.3 megabytes (MB), and took 33 seconds to download. Video ads alone was 9MB. With an ad blocker, there were 52 files, using 3.5 megabytes, and downloaded in 7 seconds.
As much as blocking these ads would be good for consumers, it would conversely be disastrous for publishers. “Ad blocking[is]estimated to cost publishers nearly $22bn during 2015… [and]grew by 41% globally in the last 12 months,” according to “The 2015 Ad Blocking Report” by Adobe and PageFair.
It’s not just adverts that are embedded in web pages (both mobile and desktop) but other software that tracks a users behaviour – and is the real villain in how internet companies track the movements and preferences of users, often including when they leave that site. So-called cookies are both a necessity for remembering users when they return to a website, but deeply invasive of our privacy. They are a sadly necessary evil.
But it is this tracking software that is the insidious cancer eating away at what little privacy we still have on the internet.
Looking back at the last great ad-block scandal – when pop-up ads were rampant on the internet about 15 years ago, but were blocked by browsers until this irritant disappeared – respected developer Marco Arment likened this mobile ad-blockapocalypse to that seminal event. “A line had been crossed, and people fought back,” wrote Arment, the lead developer of Tumblr who also created Instapaper, one of my favourite and most useful apps. The pop-up industry disappeared.
Now, he argues, “modern web ads and trackers are far over the line for many people today… there’s so much consolidation amongst ad networks and analytics providers that they can easily track your behaviour across multiple sites, building a creepily accurate and deep profile of your personal information and private business”.
Publishers are justifiably concerned. Digital income is proving much harder to replicate what is being lost in decreasing print income. Mobile is even less of an advertising revenue earner than desktop. It’s a downward spiral that the global online publishing industry is going to have to tackle.
The Washington Post has already started asking readers using ad-blocking software to a subscription page. “Without income via subscriptions or advertising, we are unable to deliver the journalism that people coming to our site expect from us,” a Washington Post spokesperson told BuzzFeed. “We are currently running a test using a few different approaches to see what moves these readers to either enable ads on The Washington Post, or subscribe.”
Even though ad-block apocalypse is a major tipping point in our evolving way of consuming media, there are no definitive answers yet.