Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Doom and Gloom

Web advertising technology is all broken. It tracks you everywhere you go, it makes pages slow to load, and it’s increasingly invasive. If this doesn’t sound particularly attractive to you, you can go to hell. Jack Marshall, Wall Street Journal:1

For sites that support themselves with advertising, the reason for their heartburn is clear: they are already struggling to monetize their growing mobile audiences. If millions of iPhone and iPad users can easily activate ad blocking, that will translate to fewer ads to sell and likely less revenue.

Galen Gruman of InfoWorld chose to illustrate his post on iOS content blockers with a stock photo of a battery of missiles:

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.

Come again? The Soviet Union and the United States both had — and have — enough nuclear weaponry to eradicate all life on earth. We are still talking about shitty web ads, right?

The ad-blocking arms race now under way could easily do the same…

No. No it could not.

…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.

I sympathize with the predicament publishers are in. It’s so hard already to maintain a decent revenue stream when readers typically don’t want to pay actual money, and web ads have provided a reasonable solution for a long time. But the web ad of today is vastly different than that of five years ago. It’s not just ads, either: tracking and analytics scripts have become pervasive in a way that they never have previously. Your favourite major publishers are probably running a dozen or more of these. Add modal dialogs and claustrophobic layouts to the mix, and it’s small wonder why readers feel justified in running a content blocker.

Web visitors have created a problem: we all want investigative reporting, great writing, professional-looking video productions, and a library of music, and we don’t want to pay a subscription to every publication and channel. Heck, many people don’t want to pay a single subscription fee.

But the solution to this is failing. It has failed. As monetization strategies become increasingly intrusive, readers feel increasingly compelled and justified in blocking them. As greater numbers of readers are blocking this crap, publications increase the quantity and intrusiveness of what they think will improve their revenue stream. And more people turn on their content blockers. And the cycle continues.

Marshall and Gruman are right about one thing: if content blockers in iOS 9 and El Capitan are used by even a small percentage of the total user base, this is going to cause a huge upset across the web ad industry and the publications that are reliant upon these ads.

Best case scenario? Doc Searls (“adtech” here refers to tracking-type ads):

However it goes down, the inevitable results will be these:

  1. Brand advertising will be seen again as the most legitimate form of advertising.

  2. Brand advertising will again be credited for doing the good work of funding publishers (also broadcasters, podcasters and the rest).

  3. Adtech, and spying in general, will be shunned, as it deserves to be.

  4. Adtech will still live on, rehabilitated and cleansed, as a trusted symbiote of users who give clear and unambiguous permission for trackers they bless to dwell in their private spaces and give them optimal personalized advertising experiences.

That’s not the most positive end game for anyone who’s hoping for the total eradication of tracking, but perhaps a renewed focus will be placed on the privacy of readers and consumers. We all have a right to it, and that should be respected, regardless of what the technology enables.


  1. One thing all of these linked articles get wrong is the role of iAd — Apple’s ad network — in this. All three claim, to some extent or another, that Apple has an inherent conflict of interest here because they’re enabling ad blockers on the web, but iAds won’t be blocked. There are a couple of things wrong with this sentiment.

    First of all, content blockers only affect Safari and web content displayed through the forthcoming Safari View Controller API. If an app uses one of the older web content APIs, like UIWebView, or displays advertising in any other way, it is not subject to content blocking.

    Secondly, iAds only appear within apps. Apple does not offer a way to embed iAds on the web. As I noted above, content blockers only affect pages in Safari and pages loaded via apps that use Safari View Controller. That’s it. ↩︎