At Apple’s WWDC conference in San Francisco, the company introduced something massive. Instead of announcing it on stage, however, the revelation was hidden away in the developer notes of the iOS version of Safari 9.0, which will be the stock browser in the upcoming iOS 9.
The controversial new feature is an inbuilt ‘Content Blocker’ pathway, which will allow third-party ad-blocking-apps to bind to Safari and potentially prevent any ad script from running anywhere on the entire web.
What’s drastic about this is not just that Content Blocker will allow pervasive blocking (automatically cutting ads without any triggering), but it’s also the first example of web ad-blocking on a mobile or tablet platform.
You may think that mobile web usage is insignificant (and in terms of total data consumed this is still likely the case), but according to the global analytics firm ComScore, in terms of platforms used to access the web, mobiles and tablets overtook fixed internet access last year to become the most common platform.
And on mobile, Safari is the top web browser in Australia, accounting for around 60% of the market share (which comparatively lays waste to Chrome which has only 26%).
Numerous online media outlets are outraged by Apple’s recent move and it’s easy to understand why, with advertising revenue largely paying the wages of online journos. But are these blowups about Safari’s new ad-blocking feature really justified?
Like with every controversial issue, there’s always a flip side — and it’s not just coming from people decrying the fact that ads (especially on the internet) are almost always annoying.
The statistics about mobile web surfing numbers, for example, are a little wobbly. According to Nielson, for example, only about 11% of mobile web time goes through dedicated web browsers — the other 89% comes through apps. If those apps don’t use Safari to open web pages, the immediate effect might be much smaller than estimated.
There’s also some people reasoning that if content blockers are available on mobiles that this will force web advertising to be less invasive.
That’s nothing more than speculation, however, and it leaves all sorts of other questions unanswered — like who decides what counts as ‘intrusive’ (Apple?) and whether any users would actually turn web ads back on after having lived without them.
Then there’s the moral argument. While blocking web ads might feel different to ordering a coffee and running off without paying, that’s pretty much what it is. The sites you visit depend on web ads for revenue, so by blocking them you may be starving the very sites you enjoy.
What’s potentially at play here, then, is whether or not the user will lose out in the long term, as independent online publishers die or change for the worse from lack of direct ad revenue.
The only indicator that we have to go by is the 6-year history of AdBlock, which started as a Chrome browser extension and has since grown into the most popular multi-browser web extension ever, with over 40 million users. And considering it’ll block everything from popups to YouTube video ads, it’s no mystery why it’s popular.
But despite accepting donations from adoring users, somewhere along the way AdBlock also developed a whitelist of ads that it’s creators have deemed as OK to display.
For the most part, that whitelist is free to join for sites with non-invasive ads, but according to the Financial Times, it also accommodates ads from Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Taboola in exchange for hefty fees.
If a weeny extension company can push around big names like Google and Amazon, what are the ramifications of Apple — the biggest company in the world — having that same power over advertising and content. Is that something we really want?