What’s the Deal with Ad Blocking?

Privacy

F-Secure just released a free ad blocker for 64-bit Apple devices running iOS 9. The new app, called F-Secure AdBlocker, is an easy-to-use app that can help people save data and browse faster by preventing ads from loading in Safari (and apps using Safari View).

Ad blocking has created a bit of controversy lately, but this shouldn’t really surprise content providers. Historically, there’s always been some kind of pushback whenever people get the feeling that ads are becoming too intrusive. And the recent controversy stirred up by Apple’s addition of content blocking capabilities in its most recent iOS release seems to be continuing this trend.

This insightful blog post on the matter compares ad blocking to the pop-up blockers that proliferated after pop-up ads began pissing off the Internet. Blocking pop-ups didn’t result in the kind of adpocalypse that many claim is the situation being ushered in by iOS’ new content blocking capabilities. One recent study effectively summarizes the concerns surrounding ad blocking with one statistic: publishers stand to lose 22 billion dollars in 2015 because of ad blocking.

However, the same research demonstrates that there is considerable demand for ad blocking products. Nearly 200 million people are now using ad blockers – that’s a 41% increase in the past 12 months.

And many people, even those writing for the publishers that are losing revenue due to ad blocking, admit that this demand is completely justified. This article in the New York Times describes modern advertising practices as “the most terrible thing about the Internet”, and a recent study from the Internet Advertising Bureau in the UK seems to confirm this. Over half of the survey respondents characterized ads as “annoying” and said that they slowed down web browsing. Furthermore, 73% of respondents felt that ads were intrusive, and 31% said they were concerned about how targeted ads impacted their privacy.

This adds up to what might be thought of as a perfect storm of discontent about advertising. Cory Doctorow gave a compelling analysis of the situation in a recent article published in the Guardian. Doctorow suggests that the relationship between publishers and advertisers has created a situation justifying the need for ad blocking, which is being driven by the “annoyance at the content of ads; annoyance at the effect of ads in slowing computers to a crawl and worries about privacy.”

So ads are a nuisance because they contain content that people don’t care about, they slow down websites by increasing the amount of content that browsers are trying to load, and people worry about how they’re being targeted by ads.

F-Secure Labs actively researches how the web works, and have data that seem to support the idea that ads are becoming intrusive at the expense of users. Over 100 of the top domains on the World Wide Web are used entirely for advertising and tracking. And F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan has published recent blog posts examining how using F-Secure’s Freedome VPN can speed up web browsing by stripping out the data used by third party trackers.

Content on the World Wide Web tends to be freely available (as in people can see it or read it without having to pay the people providing that content). The companies that produce this content are able to stay in business by selling space to advertisers, who then embed their messages on the same page in the hopes that the audience will see the ad and buy whatever product or service the ad is about. So in this sense, advertising is a kind of necessary evil.

But Sullivan points out that this shouldn’t be seen as some sort of carte blanche to force annoying content on people. “There’s plenty of ways advertising is regulated in other types of media, so the idea that people shouldn’t have some way to tone down the ad content they see online is a little silly. Turning down the volume on a TV ad is perfectly ok, and volume levels are often regulated to prevent ads from being too intrusive. Bringing ad blocking to digital media is really just giving people a way to turn down the noise. Hopefully ad blocking will be seen as an opportunity for advertisers to make more of the content people want, rather than the stuff people ignore and want to block.”

F-Secure AdBlocker is a free app that blocks ads in Safari and apps using Safari View. It is currently available from Apple’s App Store, and works on Apple devices with iOS 9 and ARM64 (including iPhone 5S and later models, iPad mini 2/Retina 3 and later models, iPad Air and later models, and 6th generation iPod Touch).

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