For years, people have longed for ways to stop advertising from popping up on their iPhones and iPads. Now, software to block ads on these gadgets has arrived – and the harsh realities of the practice are causing second thoughts.
Just two days after Apple enabled ad-blocking apps through its new mobile operating system, iOS 9, users are embracing the new technology after long complaining that the ads track them, slow down Web browsers and are just plain annoying. In less than 48 hours, several ad-blocking apps with names like Peace, Purify and Crystal soared to the top of Apple’s App Store chart.
Yet some Web publishers are now fretting that ads on their sites can’t be viewed because of the blockers, which could threaten these publishers’ livelihoods. On Friday, the maker of the $3 ad-blocking app Peace, Marco Arment, removed his program from the App Store and offered refunds, saying that while stopping ads does “benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve to be hit.”
This about-face highlights the complexities around the ethics of ad blocking. Advertising underlies much of the Internet, making it possible for people to make a living off the Internet and create the content that users consume. By limiting ads, that implicit contract was violated, some publishers and advertisers said. More distinctions now need to be made around what qualifies as “good” online advertising versus “bad” ads that should be blocked, they said – though they were less clear on who would decide what constitutes a good or bad ad.
“When ad blockers became the most downloaded apps in the App Store, it forced publishers and advertisers to rethink the role that advertising plays on the Web,” said David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at the Parsons School of Design.
An Apple spokeswoman said Apple enabled ad blocking in the new version of its mobile software to give customers the option to block content “for an improved mobile browsing experience.”
Ad blocking is not new; people have been able to use ad-blockers on their desktop Web browsers for some time. But the number of people installing ad blockers has increased with the arrival of blockers on mobile devices because so much computing has now moved to those devices.
That means the potential for ad blocking to dent revenue for websites and advertisers is increasing. About 16 percent of those who use the Internet in the United States, or 45 million people, have installed an ad blocker, up 48 percent over the past 12 months, said Sean Blanchfield, who runs PageFair, an Irish startup that tracks ad blocking. In a report last month, Adobe and PageFair calculated that blockers would cost publishers nearly $22 billion in revenue in 2015.
The potential toll of ad blocking has become particularly apparent over the last few days, when several website publishers got caught in the dragnet after Apple enabled ad-blocking apps. John Gruber, a technology blogger who publishes on his site Daring Fireball, posted on Twitter that “it’s wrong” if an ad blocker stops all types of ads.
“The ad network I’m a part of, The Deck, only serves ads that are fast to load and don’t track you,” Gruber said. “In my opinion, they’re good-looking ads for high-quality products and services. Why block that?”
Michael Macher, publisher of the online publication The Awl, said in a story that ran on his site that 75 to 85 percent of the site’s revenue could be blocked by ad blockers. Macher did not respond to requests for comment.
“This will be hard on small publishers,” said David Jacobs, chief executive of 29th Street Publishing, which helps publishers create apps. “There are definitely some small publishers out there that make 50 percent to 75 percent of their revenue from ads, and they have margins of about 10 percent.”
He added that some “publishers will really need another way to make money” and that readers should think about what’s happening and how they get a lot of content free. “I think that people have also underestimated how much has to change between the reader and publishers,” he said.
The reaction by publishers has created blowback for some makers of ad-blocking software. Arment’s app Peace, for instance, faced criticism because it treated all ads the same by blocking all of them. Blocking all ads is an approach that “is too blunt,” Arment wrote in a blog post. “Peace required that all ads be treated the same – all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white. If we’re going to effect positive change overall, a more nuanced, complex approach is required.”
Arment did not respond to a request for comment.
Over time, the kinds of ad blockers on mobile devices may change, said Carroll of the Parsons School of Design. While many ad-blocking apps are now basically cudgels that obstruct all ads, he said he expected there would later be “customizable, free ad blockers with a feature that offers a whitelist for some ads.” Whitelists are a list of approved ads that could get past the blocker.
Others in the online ad industry say they see the explosion of ad blocking as an opportunity to fix a broken system of intrusive, data-heavy ads that slow down the browsing experience.
“It’s the beginning of a new conversation about creating a quality environment for consumers, particularly on mobile devices,” said John Montgomery, chairman of WPP’s GroupM Connect in North America. “I think we should all look at it as an area of concern and deep interest.”
Ad-technology companies like Rubicon Project said they were now working to make the technology behind ads better and less burdensome.
“In ad tech, we tend to look at this as an opportunity to address the core issue, which is making the user experience better,” Neal Richter, Rubicon’s chief technology officer, said in a recent interview.