For years, people have wanted a way to stop invasive ads from taking over the browser on their smartphones and making the already-slow mobile web even less user-friendly. Software has finally arrived to block such ads with iOS 9, the latest major release of Apple’s mobile operating system. But so-called ad blockers are off to a tumultuous start on the platform, as people from all corners of the Internet ecosystem offer their first impressions and second thoughts about the technology.
While the dispute about ad-blocking extensions has been ongoing, it’s been kicked into overdrive by the controversy surrounding the ad blockers that are already available for download on your iPhone. The launch of Facebook’s Instant Articles feature and iOS 9’s Apple News app have added further fuel to the fire.
And as Matthew Yglesias reports for Vox, it’s unlikely that you’re going to stop hearing about it anytime soon because the development hits a nerve with online writers, who wonder whether we can continue to make a living publishing on the Internet. Read on to catch up with the major arguments about ad-blocking software and how Apple’s choice to enable it in iOS 9 adds new urgency to the debate.
Good advertising or bad advertising?
Kate Benner and Sydney Ember report for The New York Times that within 48 hours of the release of iOS 9, ad blockers with names like Peace, Purify, and Crystal had already risen to the top of Apple’s App Store charts, causing some anxiety among those who are conscious that much of the Internet is underwritten and underpinned by advertising. But there’s a growing sentiment that some advertising is good and some is bad, even when it all pays for the content that users like to consume.
Consequently, there’s an ethical debate over whether ad blockers should render all ads unviewable, or only block those that obscure content or track users’ activity. At least one of the developers behind an early ad blocker for iOS has had second thoughts about deploying the technology. Marco Arment, the developer and writer behind the $3 ad-blocking app Peace, removed the app from the App Store and offered refunds to users, stating that while ad-blocking apps “benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve to be hit.”
Both publishers and advertisers argue that the implicit contract — that users will view the ads that pay for the content they consume — is violated when ad blockers enter the picture. But many ad-blocking advocates and industry watchers concerned over users’ security argue that a distinction needs to be made between “bad” advertising and “good” advertising, since the web’s “implicit contract” increasingly requires that users stomach ever-more-invasive ads or put up with ad exchanges that track their behavior or ad networks that serve malware-infected ads.
Who will win and who will lose?
Ad blockers — especially those that block all ads, or don’t offer an easy way to whitelist websites — give rise to concerns that a more nuanced approach is necessary, even among those who want the marketing industry to take the opportunity to re-evaluate why websites need to be overloaded with aggressive ads in the first place. Blockers that offer options for customization and features to whitelist some kinds of ads are likely to begin to emerge, and the marketing world will likely explore new kinds of ads as old forms become less relevant.
Yglesias posits that this kind of shift has already happened in the past, such as when pop-up blockers forced marketers to stop relying on pop-up ads, which would create a new window when you navigated to a website. Additionally, each time technological shifts alter the way the advertising industry works, overall ad spending doesn’t change. (From 1952 to 2012, ad spend has remained at 1% to 2% of GDP.) If content blockers like the ones iOS 9 enables render a class of ad spending ineffective, the spending won’t disappear, but will simply shift somewhere else.
Three shifts seem likely, in Yglesias’s estimation. He thinks that the industry will move away from programmatic display ads and begin to favor “native” ads, instead. He also thinks that the changes will effect a shift away from mid-size publications toward publications that are either big enough to support sophisticated ad operations or small enough to have low revenue needs. Additionally, ad spending is likely to shift away from the web and into mobile app platforms, which offer a more controlled experience.
The open web or closed apps?
As the controversy over ad-blockers precipitates a debate over whether the future of media is on the open web or in the closed ecosystem of apps, Apple has positioned iOS 9’s new Apple News app as a refuge for publishers worried about ad blockers’ effect on their mobile websites and the revenue they earn on mobile. Brad Reed reports for BGR that Wired recently became the first publication to have an Apple News-exclusive story, and more publications are sure to follow. But in Reed’s estimation, it’s the media itself that’s responsible for the fact that “all of this is terrible for the open web” because “we in the news media have allowed our websites to get overloaded with aggressive ads that take over the entire page, that slow down page load times and that suck up far more data than they otherwise should.”
If publishers had put their foot down with advertisers earlier, Reed argues, websites wouldn’t be loaded with ads that hurt readers’ experiences enough for them to eagerly download ad blockers as soon as they’re made available in the App Store. The consequence is that a growing portion of the content that publishers create will live inside the walled gardens of apps instead of being available across platforms on the open web.
Both content and ads are expected to migrate to apps — whether Apple News, Facebook, or Snapchat — which you’re likely to see happen whether you believe blocking ads is moral or unethical, or whether you download a blocker that deletes all ads or let them all load on their own. While ad blockers benefit some people, they hurt others, which makes the debate not black and white, but all shades of gray.