The heat around ad blocking is intensifying.
Right now, it seems, you’ll struggle to find anyone in the publishing industry who isn’t worried about it. Given how long ad blockers have been around – AdBlock Plus started life as a Firefox browser extension in 2006 – you could be forgiven for wondering why they have come to the fore now.
There are a couple of reasons.
First, a few months back, an Israeli tech company, Shine, put the cat amoung the pigeons when it announced that a number of mobile operators were looking at deploying its technology at the source. This meant that anyone looking at online content via the operator’s cellular network would have the ability to block ads, both in-browser and in-app.
This was a significant departure from ad blocking’s traditional browser-only domain, and a worrying one when you consider that most people’s time on mobile is spent in app as opposed to browsing the mobile Web – around 90%, in fact, according to the last stats I saw from comScore and Nielsen.
Since then, however, further announcements had been lacking from Shine. Until last week, when it revealed that Jamaican operator Digicel would deploy its ad-blocking technology later this year.
By far the bigger deal, however, was Apple’s announcement that it would add ad-blocking capabilities to the latest version of its Safari mobile browser, which came as part of the recent iOS 9 release. Within 24 hours of iOS 9 launching, ad blockers occupied three of the top five places in the paid apps chart in the App Store overall.
The only bit of good news for publishers where iOS 9 was concerned was that only ads in the browser were under threat. Apple would never be so dumb/magnanimous as to block in-app ads, from which it derives so much money.
Or would it?
On October 6, it emerged that Apple had indeed given digital shelf space in the App Store to an app called Been Choice that does exactly that. Indeed, not only does it block ads in app, but its remit also covers native ads, which are usually exempt from ad blocking. It even blocks ads within Apple’s own Apple News app, which aggregates content from a host of big publishers.
For those interested, it does so by running its users’ traffic through a VPN (virtual private network) to filter out the ads and prevent the collection of user data. As such, it can block ads in native apps such as Facebook and Pinterest, but not in Twitter, which is protected from ad blocking by its end-to-end encryption. Been Choice could only block the ads in Twitter if it blocked the content along with it.
Whether the decision to approve Been Choice for an App Store listing was a legitimate one or an honest mistake, it’s likely to have publishers reaching for the liquor cabinet/headache tablets at best or heading for the hills at worst.
In a recent survey of publishers carried out by the trade body, the Association of Online Publishers, 65% of respondents cited ad blocking as a threat to the publishing business model – the first time the issue had figured in the results in seven years of asking.
In fact, 19% of respondents called out ad blocking as the most significant problem facing the industry. Once you factor in-app ad blocking into the equation, those figures are only going to rise.
Interestingly, Been Choice’s own business model relies partly on its users volunteering to share personal data with them in return for cash. Users can earn around US$20 a month by deploying the ad blocker, but they can also earn additional rewards by sharing personal information with Been Choice that it can then share with its marketing partners.
To its credit, Been Choice is quite open about this, arguing that transparency and permission are key factors in people sharing personal data. Laudable as this openness may be, it seems unlikely that many among the ad-blocking audience will be prepared to engage in this type of activity, given their propensity to blocking out marketing messages in the first place.
Either way, publishers will be hoping this a quickly corrected oversight on Apple’s part, rather than the opening of a floodgate.
Note: The Been Choice app was removed from the App Store due to VPN and privacy issues after this post was written. However, the team behind Been Choice plans to tweak the app to address these concerns and re-submit it for approval, so this issue is far from over.