On 16 September 2015, Apple launched the latest version of its iPhone operating system, iOS9. One feature of the new system is the option to install an ad blocker, preventing the phone’s Safari web browser from loading most web ads. The following day, the top-selling application in the UK was Peace, an ad blocker by celebrated software developer Marco Arment.
An estimated 150 to 200 million people use ad blockers on their desktop or laptop ad browsers and that number is growing at 41% a year. As ad spending shifts from desktops to mobile platforms, ad blockers such as Peace terrify both advertisers and proprietors of services that rely on advertising for their revenue. Yet the demand for mobile ad blockers makes perfect sense. Mobile phone users pay for the bandwidth they consume, and on many websites the bandwidth used to load ads and their accompanying tracking information is greater than the bandwidth used to load the content.
The Peace ad blocker was only available for two days before Arment announced he was pulling it from the shelves and refunding customers’ money. In a blog post titled “Just doesn’t feel good”, Arment explained his decision: while it felt great to have a top-selling app, he knew that websites that relied on advertising to pay their costs were suffering from his success. After soul searching, he decided to give up hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue because he was uncomfortable being the arbiter of which ads were and weren’t blocked.
One would assume that the rise of desktop ad blockers and the demand for tools such as Peace caused web advertising firms to engage in soul searching as well. After all, who wants to be part of an industry where your product is loathed by everyone who encounters it? 2015 was the year where web advertisers finally realised their business model was unsustainable, and that customers would no longer tolerate being put under increasingly intrusive surveillance in exchange for snippets of free content.
Just kidding. This is advertising we’re talking about, the industry founded on the hallucination that people secretly appreciate being tracked, analysed and told what to buy. Advertisers, and the technology companies that cater to them, are responding to ad blocking the only way they know how: doubling down on their fantasy that viewers will suddenly love advertising just as soon as ads are so all-knowing that they anticipate one’s every need and desire.
How else do we explain a technology as chillingly surveillant as SilverPush? The Indian startup’s claim to fame is the audio beacon, a supersonic sound that’s played when you view an appropriately enabled web ad. You can’t hear it, but if SilverPush has managed to infect your phone or tablet with its software, it will pick up the sound and contact a tracking server associating your computer with your handheld device. And hey, this supersonic tracking isn’t limited to the web – SilverPush is putting its tags in television ads as well! In an ad tech’s wet dream, you’d watch a SilverPush-enabled car ad on your television while using your laptop, phone and tablet, all of which would report to the company’s servers, allowing it to check whether you’d subsequently searched for information on the car in question.
Why go through all this trouble to track a user across their devices? The simple truth is that web ads don’t work very well. People hate them – which is why we block them – and almost no one voluntarily clicks on them. So internet advertising companies need to promise advertisers that putting us under more surveillance will magically make web ads work. When ads follow you from your TV screen to your computer to your phone, you’ll surely click on them, right?
Maybe 2016 is the year consumers revolt and demand governments regulate ad technology that watches our every more. After all, regulators in the EU and the UK have raised questions about other deeply surveillant advertising tools, such as Phorm’s Webwise, which analyses every webpage you visit in the hope of better targeting you.
Maybe 2016 is the year we start paying for the content we consume, with services such as YouTube Red, which invites users to pay a monthly subscription in exchange for ad-free access to YouTube videos. Perhaps it’s the year that novel systems such as Tipsy, which encourage readers to voluntarily pay publishers for the content they read, really catch on. Nah. 2016 is probably the year ads start turning on your camera and identifying you by faceprint. Because that will absolutely make web ads suck less.
Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab. A long time ago, he accidentally invented the pop-up ad. He feels badly about this and is very, very sorry.
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