ad-blocking

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.