In “How Can This Be Legal” News…

A report today in the FT suggests that at least one mobile operator in Europe is planning on putting ad-blocking software into their network, with Google a named target.

The software specifically targets web advertising rather than that in apps, and comes from an Israeli company.

The reasoning is that networks are seeing massive growth in data usage, and of course the revenue that is driving some of this growth is ending up with big advertising networks – like Google. In the meantime, the networks have to keep investing to cope with the demand from their customers.

EE published a Tweet this week suggesting that they see their UK data growth increasing five-fold by 2019:

(Note – there’s no suggestion that EE is the network referred to in the FT piece).

But this is all surely begs the question: how can this be legal?

A recent court case in Germany was won by the popular AdBlock Plus software against a consortium of German publishers. But that’s a bit different.

If I, as an individual, choose to use some kind of blocking software, then that’s a choice I make. I’m running a piece of software on my computer, and it’s up to websites how they combat that. I might similarly choose not to download images from a website (remember when that was a serious consideration in an age of dial-up!).

But doing it at a network level, and effectively opting all its customers into the scheme? If Sky decided to remove adverts from ITV’s programmes that it delivers via its satellite platform because it knew that ITV’s customers didn’t really like the ads, there’d rightly be an uproar. There’d be court action almost instantly.

I would imagine the likes of Google have some very good lawyers ready and raring to go.

As far as ad blockers go per-se, I see both sides of the argument:

– If I’m a site that relies on advertising to produce my services, then I would be very annoyed that my only means of income is denied me by users using ad blocking technology. You are denying me my income.

– As a user, on the other hand, I’m seeing ever more invasive types of advertising all over the web. Videos loading and playing without my explicit permission and using up my, sometimes expensive, bandwidth; invasive pop-ups that do their hardest to hide the “close” button or “x” character so that I inadvertently click on them; sites that run such heavy “rich media” advertising, that it brings my browser to a grinding halt.

But those websites need a business model to exist, advertising is usually part or all of that model. It’s morally dubious for me to block advertising on that basis. If I find a site’s advertising objectionable, should I not just avoid visiting the site?

In the end I suspect that it’ll be advertising technology (ad-tech) that “fixes” the problem. Different websites are served in different ways, but a common way is to deliver the main editorial, with advertising coming fairly quickly thereafter, often because a micro-auction has taken place to determine what advertising you see. It’s not beyond the bounds of programming for a site to notice that its advertising is being blocked, and therefore for it to block the editorial.

It could happily display something along the lines of “Sorry – this page is unavailable to you because we’ve detected you’re using an ad blocker. Please either disable it, or add us to your white list. We’ve got children to feed.”

Something like that.

And as a commenter on The Verge report of the story noted, if entire sites were suddenly made unavailable to customers of a particular mobile operator, they’d surely change their tune pretty quickly.

I also note the software that Lenovo was recently found to be installing on many domestic computers they were selling. Much of the furore around that incident was the security implications of people using that software (software they probably didn’t know they had installed). But as big an issue to me was what the software was supposed to do – replace the advertising on certain websites with their own advertising. The “benefit” to consumers would be that this was targeted better. But again, that surely should be illegal. Going back to my hypothetical Sky analogy – if Sky removed ITV’s advertising and replaced it with its own advertising without permission, then that’d surely be theft of a kind?

In the meantime, this does feel like a shakedown from the mobile operator(s) involved. If they can’t support their customers’ demands, then their pricing model is wrong, and they should change/increase their prices accordingly. I can’t see Google et al doing anything aside from instructing their lawyers if and when this ad-blocking technology came to be utilised.

4 Comments

  1. My own website, media.info, is now running a ‘pro’ account. Beneath every ad on a typical page – https://media.info/radio/news/bbc-local-radio-closes-late-show-for-east-midlands say – you’ll see a little piece of text saying “remove these ads: go pro” and a link to a pro account page. It costs £5.99 for a year. I started doing this on April 14.

    You rightly say that ad-blockers should be programmatically blockable. They are. if you go to the website with an ad blocker enabled, it gives you a message – https://plus.google.com/+JamesCridland/posts/cEqL4BxVEJk shows you what it looks like. It says if you want to remove ads you can become a pro user: but it also gives a PayPal account for a “donation”, which can be for any amount. I then comp you a Pro account. I started doing this on the same day, April 14.

    The results so far, a month in: people buying a ‘pro’ account (except me, to test it works): zero.
    People sending me a “donation” (for £5.99): one.

  2. You ask: what are Google doing about this?

    First: pushing every website to use encrypted https. If every website did this, it would effectively kill any fiddling about by wifi operators or mobile networks: they simply don’t know what’s there (except for the domain name).

    Second: that Google Data Saver thing. https://support.google.com/chrome/answer/2392284?hl=en-GB – it’s an extension (for desktop) and setting (on Android and iOS). It shrinks images down in size and quality where it can, as well as utilising a number of other interesting bandwidth-saving techniques. https://static.googleusercontent.com/media/research.google.com/en//pubs/archive/43447.pdf is the full paper on how it works and what it does.

    This ‘data saver’ encrypts all non-https connections and routing them through Google wherever possible; which means that nobody can interfere with that website’s traffic apart from Google themselves. So this is also something that could quite effectively kill any tampering with web-pages by wifi operators or mobile networks. I normally use it on all my mobile devices; and now on my Chromebook (my main machine these days).

    Theoretically, therefore, Google is already doing a fair amount of work to effectively stop ISPs and mobile networks from fiddling with web pages. I hadn’t thought of it as a method of ensuring that the ads are shown: but it’s that, too. If, of course, you aren’t running an ad blocker.

  3. Thanks for your experiences James. I’m probably as unsurprised as you are about the lack of people taking up your paid “Pro” options. I think most people, most of the time accept that advertising supports the service they’re using. And if they don’t, well they really shouldn’t complain or rely on that service because it might just go away.

    What would be really interesting would be not to simply present that image to those you ad blockers, but to actually only present that image. In other words, turn off your ad-blocker or whitelist this site. Otherwise you’re getting nothing from it.

    That’d be quite a harsh way of dealing with things, and I suppose in the broad scheme of things, many sites just “accept” that a certain percentage of users use the technology, just as advertisers seem to accept that a certain percentage of views are fraudulent.

  4. I might try that. The issue is that I have no idea how many people see that message since if they are running an adblocker they’ll probably have turned off Google Analytics, too, so I can’t capture that event.

    Might be fun to give it a go. Wow, it’ll be an annoying message. !

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