Apple's iOS 9 takes ad blockers to dangerous new heights

Everyone, it seems, hates online ads. That hatred is fueling a technology arms race, one that Apple is joining in iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, both due for release this fall. That arms race ultimately leads to the same kind of mutually assured destruction scenario we saw in the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and United States able to destroy the other -- and everyone else -- should it come to that.

The ad-blocking arms race now under way could easily do the same, destroying content-based websites except for a few hardy paid survivors that can charge and the wide range of vendor websites all too happy to promote their own reality, and nothing else, to an audience seeking independent views. Ultimately, we all lose: vendor, publisher, and reader. 

The publishing business model has long rested on two legs: advertising and subscriptions, with publishers adjusting the ratio based on their markets. Publishers need to make money to fund their work, even if they're nonprofits.

But the early Internet pioneers had a notion that information should be free, which originally meant "freely available" but quickly morphed into "unpaid." "Ads would pay for it" was the first dot-com bubble's business mantra. Now, in the third dot-com bubble, ads are under attack.

Worse, on the Web, the subscription model has been taken away, with "paywalls" scorned not only by readers but by the very writers and editors whom the paywalls (that is, subscriptions) fund. In some markets, the paid-subscription model is being replaced with the registration model, which basically takes your personal information and sells it to get that income.

That's what Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and pretty much any free service or content provider does when they ask for a sign-up. (That's why you see social sign-in used so broadly: It's really an information-sucking mechanism meant to charge you when you won't pay real money.) Users hate this too, and legitimate privacy-exploitation fears have created a backlash as well.

All of that has upped the ante on advertising for online publishers, which is why you see endless slideshows on so many broad-interest websites (slideshows provide more ad impressions per reader) and why more ads are stuffed in more places on the page.

It's easy to understand why users hate online ads: They increasingly pop up and interrupt your reading. Some make you chase them around the page to get rid of them. Some even play videos, punishing you and your neighbors with unwanted noise.

As online ads become more interactive and video-oriented, the Web pages that carry them take longer and longer to load, and they consume more and more bandwidth, which for most of us is metered and is a resource we don't want someone else to spend on our behalf. It's more punishment for reading a website.

InfoWorld is part of a media company, so we're hit by the cross fire every day. Every website that isn't a marketing vehicle for a vendor is in the same cross fire.

As users block more ads through ad blockers, pop-up blockers, and Flash disablers, advertisers find more ways to get around them and be more intrusive. Or they insinuate themselves into the content you want using a perversion called native content (though there's nothing native about the "content"), making it harder and harder to tell what is independent information and what is marketing.

Or they give up and not advertise, which reduces a publisher's ability to survive as an independent information-providing business -- unless it finds other revenue sources, like the unloved subscriptions or the privacy-violating registration. (Have you noticed that now everyone wants your phone number when signing up It's because you ignore all their emails and popup ads.)

The ad blockers respond to advertisers' increasingly annoying intrusions by throwing more grenades at websites. They block not only ads but other code on pages, causing Web pages to break. Some block the display of actual content, because they've decided to err on the side of blocking anything that might contain ads. Some even target the third-party traffic-counting systems such as Adobe's Omniture SiteCatalyst in hopes of depressing ad revenue as punishment for carrying ads, or at least for carrying "bad" ads.

It won't be too long before they start blocking social sign-in under the aegis of user privacy. After all, many already block the tracking features used by social networks' and advertisers' cookies (though the so-called super cookie that Verizon had used trumps that tracker-blocking -- and the arms race continues).

Many ad blockers use third-party services like EasyList that provide blacklists and the equivalent of virus signatures to block suspect content and code on Web pages. That can destroy the websites' integrity and ability to function -- at scale, all with little to no recourse.

It truly an arms race, and it doesn't lead us anywhere good.

Apple's iOS 9 move takes this mess to an even worse level. Apple has made ad blocking a core feature of the operating system itself through a set of system extensions, and there's no way to disable it. (To Apple's credit, it calls the feature "content blocking" because it can -- and will -- be used to block much more than ads.)

It's clear from what early testers have found that users will love this new capability, and we can expect iOS devices to quickly become faster-loading, ad-free zones within a year. They will probably also lose other annoying content like video and audio along the way. That's great for readers in the short term, but devastating for those who create and fund the content, and ultimately bad for readers, many of whose content sources will have gone out of business.

Ad blocking is not turned on by default, but like encryption it's always there. Just as iOS encryption needs a password to trigger it, iOS 9's ad blocking needs an ad-blocker app to trigger it. If you install an app like Adblocker on your iPhone or iPad, ad blocking is up and running, affecting every website you load. Because Apple requires all browsers in iOS to use its WebKit engine, any browser automatically enforces the ad blocking.

As a result, only those companies that have paid Adblocker and its ilk to have their ads displayed will have their ads visible on iOS 9. (You didn't know that ad blockers charge to whitelist specific ads Of course they do -- that's how they make their money for their "free" or low-cost service.)

Apple cites user experience as the rationale for iOS 9's ad-blocking technology. Certainly the intrusive ads that so annoy us all give cover to that claim. But let's not fool ourselves: Apple is also looking for ways to degrade archrival Google.

For the last couple years, Apple's marketing has emphasized how it doesn't mine user data and sell that information to the highest bidder, unlike Google. Now, with OS-level ad blocking it can reduce Google' ad income significantly. Because iOS devices are one of Google's biggest source of ad income, earning three times as much as Google's own, more widely used Android.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if Apple's own iAd service for ads in mobile apps (not websites) is exempt from iOS 9's ad blocking. In fact, Harvard University's Nieman Lab reports that iAd ads won't and can't be blocked by Apple's content blocker extensions. (Apple did not respond to my inquiry about how content blocking would work with app-oriented ad delivery systems such as iAd.) Even if iAd is blocked by the content blocker technology in iOS 9, Apple's primary income is from product sales, so sacrificing iAd to hurt Google's primary income stream is an easy decision.

Mobile devices are where the growth in user devices is and -- more important -- in where people spend their time. Blocking Google, Facebook, and other ad networks in mobile is a preemptive nuclear strike launched before the other side has enough of its own warheads.

It's not iOS alone, of course: Apple has included this ad-blocking capability in OS X El Capitan's Safari 9 browser. That'll hurt Google for sure, given that Safari is the dominant browser in the Mac world, which is the only growing PC segment today.

If Microsoft feels the need to do the same in Windows (after all, it has no ad business to threaten, nor does it like Google much), Google will end up able to serve ads only to Android devices, Chromebooks, and Chrome-using computers. Chrome is the most popular browser today, but that could change if it ends up being recast as the "advertising browser."

To use another war analogy, ad blockers have to destroy the village to save it. That made no sense in the Vietnam War, and it makes no sense in the content world today. But it's the war we're collectively waging against each other.

Apple has pushed it to the level of mutually assured destruction. You know that advertisers, Google, and the social networks are readying their own technology missiles. They have no choice.

Apple probably doesn't care about publishers; it's long looked at that industry as an annoyance that at best relays its marketing messages at little cost.

Its new News app in iOS 9 has no clear business model for the publishers who supply its content -- other than iAd-served ads, of course. It's a poorly designed app that makes it too hard to find the content you want; established apps like Flipboard are much better.

But Apple plays the long game, and News doesn't have to be good. All it has to do is be the only option that users turn to when all those other websites are devastated by the holes blown in them by the ad blockers. If other content apps survive and use an iAd competitor, Apple still controls which ones are available and can take a cut of any in-app purchases such as subscriptions. Thus, Apple will control much of the safe distribution and revenue stream for mobile websites. Yikes!

Duck and cover. And hope they all pull back from the brink.


Galen Gruman

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