iOS9 has launched, bringing with the possibility for people to block ads on their mobile devices. Mobile consumption is now so ubiquitous that there are arguments the term ‘mobile internet’ is a misnomer, and that for all intents and purposes content consumed on mobile devices is the internet.
Back in 2013, before ad-blocking was the primary concern of digital publishers, it was hitting sites like Destructoid because of their audience demographics. Rereading this 2013 op-ed from the gaming site is illuminating, as many publishers start to grapple with those issues. Destructoid’s founder, Yanier Gonzalez, explains the site’s position after a reader was convinced to turn off ad-blocking on the site:
“Maybe I’ve won this battle, but I’ve lost a war I wasn’t even aware I was fighting.
I’m not alone — ArsTechnica once fought back by limiting access to those running the plug-in and saw an immediate backlash. Clearly, fighting your readers head-on is not the right solution.”
And many digital native sites see the greater proportion of their audiences coming on mobile. Mic chief executive officer and co-founder Chris Altcheck claims the site gets 75 per cent of traffic from mobile, compared to 55-60 per cent at Mashable and 55 per cent at Vox Media.
So it should come as no surprise that many publishers who rely upon mobile advertising to sustain their content are up in arms about iOS9 for fear their revenue is about to drain away – fears exacerbated by the fact that ad-blocking apps shot to the top of the App Store sales charts.
The ‘death of the free web’
In a cogent if overblown article published immediately afterwards, Nilay Patel for The Verge argues what we’re seeing as a combination of transition to mobile, the reintermediation of the web through platforms like Facebook, and adblocking, is ‘the slow death of the web’:
“But taking money and attention away from the web means that the pace of web innovation will slow to a crawl…And asking most small- to medium-sized sites to weather that change without dramatic consequences is utterly foolish.
What happens to a small company when you take away 75 to 85 percent of its revenue opportunities in the name of user experience?”
After all, the use of intrusive display ads that have a negative impact on user experience was a choice the publishers made and to which their audiences didn’t explicitly agree.
Mathew Ingram argues:
“The idea that readers are somehow morally obligated to look at advertising becomes absurd if we apply it to almost any other medium. Are readers who only look at one or two sections of a newspaper—and never the ads—stealing that content? Are people who use PVRs to fast-forward through the ads on television committing a theft of some kind?”
In his article, Ingram cites Instapaper and Tumblr founder Marco Arment’s argument that ad-blocking is ethical. And to that end, Arment was the developer behind Peace, the best-selling iOS9 mobile ad-blocker.
But, in a Flappy Bird-esque withdrawal, Arment quickly pulled Peace from the app story. In a post explaining the decision entitled ‘Just doesn’t feel good‘, Arment says:
“Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.
Peace required that all ads be treated the same — all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white. This approach is too blunt, and Ghostery and I have both decided that it doesn’t serve our goals or beliefs well enough.”
Some critics leapt on a withdrawal based on the ‘blunt’ nature of the blocking to suggest Arment’s real issue was that it didn’t allow for an Adblock Plus-like ‘whitelist’. This is the same system that’s led people to accuse Adblock Plus owner Eyeo of essentially running a digital protection racket – ‘that’s a nice ad revenue model you’ve got there… be a shame if anything were to happen to it‘.
That’s not necessarily a position the IAB’s Scott Cunningham agrees with…
“I don’t think it’s a valid approach. You hear the extortion comment all the time, but I prefer to look at it as, it just honestly negatively impacts the value chain between the publisher and consumer.”
…but the sentiment is clear: the interposition of ad-blockers between publishers and audience can only hurt publishers’ digital revenues.
It’s too soon to see what effect the increase in takeup of mobile content blockers will have on publishers, but you can be assured that each will be watching to see if one of their primary sources of revenue is about to disappear – and that there’ll be plenty of arguments about what to do about it.