The end of the ad blocking era

Whether you are accessing your web content on a laptop, tablet or phone you’re no doubt used to the frustrating, annoying and occasionally device crippling advertising which comes with most web pages. (Except for our advertisers, of course, who provide only valuable, informative offers for goods and services of interest to our readers. Ahem.) The fact is that consumers of web content hate advertisements, perhaps far more so than television viewers who grow annoyed by the ads which break up their favorite network and non-premium cable shows. In response to that sentiment, particularly for those browsing the web on their phones, developers have been coming up with ad blockers which aim to provide a smoother, less distracting web experience. One such person is Marco Arment, the developer of a new and extremely popular ad blocker called Peace. Or at least he was. After hitting the number one spot for most popular, paid download in only a few days, Marco pulled his application off the market saying it just didn’t feel right.

For the last two days, Marco Arment has been the envy of the Apple iTunes store. His $3 app, “Peace,” which allowed users to block all ads when they surf the Web on their iPhones, had earned the title of most downloaded paid app.

But on Friday, Arment took the program down — citing concerns that it was hurting some people who “don’t deserve the hit.”

Arment’s app and other ad blockers have skyrocketed in popularity since Apple added support for the technology in its newest mobile operating system, iOS 9, which launched on Wednesday. But the programs also are at the center of an acrimonious debate over the economy and future shape of the Internet. A huge swath of companies, from giants such as Google and Facebook to start-ups and media organizations, offer their services for free — if users agree to view targeted ads based on their online habits.

Arment appeared to acknowledge that the backlash over his program prompted him to pull it from the iTunes store.

So Mr. Arment was hit by a fit of guilt over the harm he was doing, not to the advertisers, but ostensibly to the future of the web itself and the availability of content to the users. Of course it’s worth noting that the guilt didn’t set in until he’s racked up more than 12K sales and gotten his name out there as a promising developer. But then, even if he received the full three dollars per sale (which he did not) that’s not exactly a fortune compared to the massive paydays some other developers have realized, so perhaps there was a bit of altruism involved.

The deeper question is whether or not this is something we should all be concerned about. The fact is that consumers have long been used to getting their content on the web for free, at least in most cases. There are exceptions for things like movies, downloadable books and such, but that’s more of a purchase of intellectual entertainment property which most shoppers generally pay for in the brick and mortar world anyway. But websites which deliver news, opinion, trivia and generally “fun” stuff have always been free, coming with the built in assumption that you’ll have to put up with some advertising to access it.

So what if the technology advances sufficiently that the vast majority of users can block all of those ads with a cheap (or free) app that they can install in minutes? A week or so before the story of Mr. Arment hit the news there was an editorial at USA Today by Michael Wolff which explored just that question. His conclusion was that ad blockers may lead to the next stage in the evolution of content distribution.

In a sense, the reality of ad blocking is, in the relentless booster environment of digital media, no more disturbing than some estimates that fully a third of online traffic is fraudulent. Who cares if ads are blocked if nobody sees them anyway? Or, why would fake people block ads?

The digital media apologist Jeff Jarvis wrote a recent screed in which he dismissed the problem of ad blocking, or saw it as a secret blessing, by saying that Internet advertising was, in addition to being stupid and annoying, ineffective anyway. His suggestion that ads ought to become smart and engaging— that technology properly applied could make ads smarter and more engaging — was less a solution, then an acknowledgement that there was no solution. Because advertising does not ever get better; at its best, it is intrusive — hence, people (at least sentient people) will always block it if they can. And, to boot, their pages will load faster.

“If blocking becomes widespread, the ad industry will be pushed to produce ads that are simpler, less invasive and far more transparent about the way they’re handling our data — or risk getting blocked forever if they fail,” wrote Farhad Manjoo, The New York Times’s gadget correspondent.

There was a time (which our younger readers won’t recall) when television advertising was just something you put up with. It represented a chance to get up and go to the bathroom or grab a fresh beverage if you wished. Then technology started offering ways to record your shows, watch them on demand and skip over the ads. The networks and cable companies fought back wherever they could. (If you are a Time Warner Cable subscriber and watch any previously aired shows “on demand” you will find that most of the new, popular stuff begins with a warning that “Fast Forward and other capabilities may be disabled.”) But cord cutters were willing to pay a small fee to curate their own content and skip the ads entirely.

As far as the web coming through your phones is concerned, this could go one of two ways. In a sunny, glass is half full world, advertisers will be forced to go to less intrusive ads without all the Flash content that bogs down and cripples your devices. They would focus on making more engaging, entertaining and useful ads that people might actually want to check out. The darker prospect is that nothing changes and more and more users go to ad blockers. When ads no longer produce traffic, advertisers will stop paying for space and then content providers will either have to close up shop or only offer their content on a paid subscription basis. The fundamentals of the web economy as we know it would essentially collapse.

Which way do we go from here? I think it might be a somewhat smaller web in the end, but the quality will at least go up. And eventually people will probably get used to the idea of laying out a series of small micropayments for the content they truly want to see.