Ad-Blocking: Consumer Protection or Death of the Free Web?

Advertising on the Internet is ubiquitous, intrusive, invisible and creepy. It is a prime reason for tracking user behaviour online. Advertising and behaviour tracking are key elements of the process that turns consumer into product, and allows giant corporations to predict and – whisper this – control our behaviour.

In practical terms, mobile use of the web is measurably slower and more data-hungry when adverts have to be downloaded. Writing in The Next Web, Owen Williams has tested ad-free page speeds against their usual ‘with ad’ versions and writes convincingly about the benefits of ad-blocking.1

Chart comparing page load time for Safari on iOS9 using Crystal ad-blocking software Page Load comparison using Crystal, an Ad-Blocking app available for iOS 9 devices

Ad-blocking refers to the use of software that ‘blocks’ ads from downloading to the user’s browser; it is currently in the news because Apple now allow third-party Ad-blocking software that will block ads from its Safari mobile browser on iOS 9, the recently-released update to its mobile browsing platform.

Death of the web

Ad-blocking technology is dangerous, however. Online advertising is the only business model that currently supports online material. The remainder of this post critiques The writing is on the wall for the ad-supported Web: It’s the end of the line, by Dylan Tweney, a well-known tech journalist and former senior editor at Wired, in VentureBeat, which discusses the current state-of-play in online publishing and the prospect of an ad-free Internet 2.

White Paper Critique

Title

The writing is on the wall for the ad-supported Web: It’s the end of the line

Author

Dylan Tweney

Summary

Tweney’s article begins by laying out the current state of affairs: use of adblocking software is widespread and will only increase further, due, in part to Apple’s recent change of policy regarding mobile adblocking apps in the App Store.

Users, says Tweney are ‘fed up’ with intrusions that include ‘incessant banner ads, obnoxious pop-ups, and videos that automatically start playing when you load a page’, ‘cookies and widgets that track their every move online’ and ‘fullscreen takeovers that force you to find, and click, a tiny “x” before you can read the article you actually came for’.

The article discusses the market-driven reduction in advertising value and the three ways of combatting the reduction – increased traffic, increasing the amount of ads per page and native advertising (sponsored content). The combination has, according to the author, ‘…resulted in the ad-choked, click-bait, sponsored-content Web we have today.’

The article concludes with the most common alternative business models employed by online publishers: premium content aimed at a premium audience (Techmeme is the example given) and alternative revenue sources. Other alternatives mentioned include paywalls, event organisation and micropayments. These do not, however, tend to meet with any great success for very many publishers.

The future for online publishers, says Tweney, is ‘grim’; adblocking is coming almost without debate: ‘The economic forces governing Web advertising have led us to a point where ads are out of control, and readers have no choice but to take measures to protect themselves and their bandwidth.’

Comment on Paper

This paper sets out its arguments clearly and logically, but is more lopsided with its evidence.

The initial discussion of current development is well referenced, with links to papers/opinion pieces by luminaries such as Marco Arment3 (Instapaper founder), Jean Louis-Gassée4 (former Apple executive and investor) and Casey Johnston5; the second half of the article, however, around the predominant business models and the failure of alternatives is not so well evidenced.

Some of the evidence, in fact, references Venturebeat’s own activities – interesting in an article which is itself critical of the confusion caused by sponsored content!


References


  1. The Next Web, August 2015 (http://thenextweb.com/apple/2015/08/24/ios-9-content-blocking-will-transform-the-mobile-web-ive-tried-it/
  2. Dylan Tweney writing for VentureBeat, September 2015 (http://venturebeat.com/2015/09/17/the-writing-is-on-the-wall-for-the-ad-supported-web-its-over/
  3. The ethics of modern web ad-blocking (http://www.marco.org/2015/08/11/ad-blocking-ethics); August 2015 
  4. Life after content blocking in Monday Note (http://www.mondaynote.com/2015/08/31/life-after-content-blocking/), August 2015 
  5. Welcome to the Block Party in The AWL (http://www.theawl.com/2015/09/welcome-to-the-block-party), September 2015 

One response to “Ad-Blocking: Consumer Protection or Death of the Free Web?

  1. Pingback: 6 topics in IS – Assessed blog posts | mscismarksanders·

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