The latest version of Apple’s operating system for phones and tablets, iOS9, allows the installation of adblocking software that removes advertising, analytics and tracking within Apple’s Safari browser. While Apple’s smartphone market share is only around 14% worldwide, this has prompted another outpouring from the mobile and web advertising industry on the effects of adblockers, and discussion as to whether a “free” web can exist without adverts.
It’s not a straightforward question: advertising executives and publishers complain that ads fund “free” content and adblockers break this contract. Defenders of adblocking point out that the techniques used to serve ads are underhand and that the ads themselves are intrusive. Who is right?
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Why we use adblockers
There are good reasons for using adblockers. People are usually prompted to do so by online advertising techniques that they find intrusive. These include pop-ups, pop-unders, blinking ads, being forced to watch videos before getting to the content, and ads that contravene the Acceptable Ads Manifesto.
Adverts and trackers can be loaded from multiple third-party websites, inserted into the web page by advertising networks rather than by the site’s publishers. While this saves publishers the hassle of finding advertisers and negotiating rates, it means they often have little say over what ads appear, which can lead to ads that are irrelevant, dubious, even offensive. The additional load on the browser from connecting to multiple sites at once also drains battery and bandwidth and slows down the page load – all for something we don’t want and which scours our devices to collect information about us for further use.
The UK’s Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) believe that 15% of British adults use adblockers. The IAB study found that people blocked adverts because they were intrusive (73%), ugly or annoying (55%), slowed down web browsers (54%), were irrelevant (46%), or over privacy concerns (31%). What this suggests is that users don’t reject advertising per se, but intrusive advertising specifically.
Advertising, ethics and the web
The advertising industry argues that adblockers undermine the revenue model for publishers that relies upon behaviourally targeted advertising. They claim adblockers stifle start-ups that are dependent on advertising as a means of generating revenue. The theory goes that without advertising revenue all that’s left is subscription services, something which generally only large corporations are good at building.
While there is some truth to this, the argument assumes that digital start-ups (whether this be an app, a new social media service, or a news website) have access to a large user base from which to generate ad revenue. But of course this isn’t the case when firms are only just getting going. Start-ups rely on investment to grow and be self-sustaining: only then can advertising assist.
It is reasonable to argue that content has to be paid for. We might try to ignore the adverts that subsidise printed newspapers and magazines, but we cannot remove them. However, in respect of mobile devices – which have now become the primary means through which the world gets online – we must also consider the data plan that we pay for as part of our mobile phone contract. The firm behind one mobile adblocker, Shine, estimates that depending on where we live, ads can use up 10-50% of a user’s data allowance.
Browsers as consent mechanisms
So the case for mobile is different, in that ads represent a cost to the user. Europeans living in EU member states have the right to refuse to be tracked by third parties. This comes under Article 5(3) of the EU ePrivacy Directive, that in 2012 was altered so people have to be asked upfront whether they consent to cookies.
The aim of this was to shift third-party cookies from being opt-out to being opt-in. The ad industry argued that people’s web browser settings were sufficient to indicate consent to interest-based advertising and tracking – but of course, many people do not know how to alter browser settings. Seen in this way, adblockers are a means of expressing (or rather, denying) consent – something made clear by the need to find and install an adblocking programme or browser extension.
The problem with the implied contract of advertising-for-content is that it is opaque and built upon questionable terms. It’s disingenuous to blame people for using adblockers: we accept adverts in magazines, newspapers and cinemas and on radio, billboards and television. The good ones make us smile. The best we fondly remember. We mostly stick to the deal that we get content free or at reduced cost in exchange for being exposed to ads.
But the growth of adblocking demonstrates that parts of the advertising industry have overstepped the mark with their creepy tracking mechanisms and deliberately confusing or irritating formats. The ad industry broke the contract, not us. How does anyone think that irritating people is the way forward? Which brand, large or small, would want to be associated with annoying their customers?
The growing number of people using desktop and mobile adblockers leaves the online advertising industry two options: fight web users and ad-blocking firms by lobbying for legal change or protection, or the more interesting route of trying to create a model that works for everyone. Rather than fighting the tide, advertising and publishing need to find a way to swim with it.