A lay-person’s guide to The Great Content Blocking Controversy of 2015

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 09.04.19A lot of the tech podcasts I listen to often refer to ‘ordinary people’, that vast majority of technology users who use devices without necessarily understanding how they work. Which can sometimes sound like a snotty remark but is certainly something that holds true for Apple products in particular. For example, it turns out, most people don’t care how much RAM is installed in their tablet or smartphone; most people aren’t bothered by the number of megapixels in the camera. Nokia once launched a phone with 31 (was it?) megapixels, but people didn’t rush to buy it.

Most people are satisfied that their iPhone or whatever works. They might complain if they can’t run an update because of a lack of space, but those pains are usually temporary. The tech podcasts are always harping on about the inadequacy of the 16GB iPhone (friends don’t let friends buy 16GB), but it turns out that 43 percent of iPhone sales are of 16GB models. Regular people just get what they can get and what they think they can afford. From Apple’s perspective, they get a new customer who gets the ‘affordable’ phone. When it comes time to upgrade, that customer is likely to go for the bigger capacity middle tier, having experienced how shit things can be at the bottom end. This is what you call playing the long game. The entry-level iPhone is good enough that people want to stick with it; but 16GB is bad enough that people will spend more the next time. And more likely to want to replace an ageing phone than keep it another year.

I consider myself halfway between an ordinary person and a techie. I understand technology, and I know a lot about it, but I’m not a coder or an engineer. One thing I think we’ve all been aware of over the past couple of years is how shit web sites are in mobile Safari. You follow a link from a tweet and it takes you to, say, The Independent. The page loads slowly, even though you are on wifi or a fast 4G connection. When the article appears, it is interrupted every few lines by intrusive ads. While you’re reading the article, the progress bar at the top shows that the page is still loading. You finish reading the article, and the page is still loading.

Or these scenarios: you follow a link to a story, but instead of getting the web page you get bounced into the App Store and are prompted to buy the app that goes with that site. Or the page is covered by a prompt to buy the app. Or the page is covered by a massive ad that you can’t dismiss. Or there’s an ad on the page that scrolls when you scroll, making the content impossible to see. Or the page loads and you start to scroll but then an ad appears at the last minute and you have accidentally tapped it, and a new page opens, one you didn’t want to visit.

Instead of the article, or news story or opinion column, you just get assailed by ads. And everything takes forever to load. Back in the late 90s, we used to say that seven seconds was the time you got before a web visitor grew restless and decided not to stay on your page. Seven seconds seems like luxury now. Even though computers are a lot faster, even though bandwidth is a lot wider, somehow the web got really, really slow. Especially on mobiles. It’s especially bad if you have anything other than an unlimited data plan, or if you’re roaming overseas. These news articles shouldn’t be gobbling your data in the way they are.

What’s been happening is that struggling publishers are allowing ad networks to run all kinds of scripts, throw up all kinds of intrusive and nasty advertising, to run all kinds of nosy trackers, in order to pay their overheads and (in some cases at least) writers. The ad networks aren’t advertisers per se, they are the brokers, the middlemen. And they don’t care that you just followed a link and can’t read the article. Their job is to serve ads. They also don’t care how they serve those ads: because they’re charging advertisers per ad served, they have found ways of serving a lot of ads. Some of which, it seems, aren’t even visible.

Allegedly, there are JPEGS and videos running away underneath the ads you do see, which are also ads, and which the ad networks are charging the advertisers for. It almost seems like a massive fraud is being perpetrated, doesn’t it?

Into this dystopia slips the largely unassuming iOS update to version 9. This is not an aggressive update. There aren’t new, flatter icons, there’s not a lot of surface change. If it was a leopard, it would be a snow leopard. There’s a new system font (hooray) and the return of the -1 screen, which now features suggestions from Siri. The fucking shift key problem has been (sort of) fixed. But there is a small new feature that is proving controversial.

It was a slow train coming. The publishers and ad networks could see it coming down the track. But still, if you visited Macworld, or iMore, or CNET, or any newspaper web site, the experience was bad: the pages loaded slow, the progress bar sometimes never reached the end. From Apple’s point of view, it was embarrassing. Because when almost all web pages load slowly, you’re not thinking, javascript, you’re not thinking, trackers, you’re not thinking, fifty ads loading in the background that I can’t even see. You’re thinking, gee this tiny little mostly-text web page is taking forever to load. Mobile Safari is SHIT.

And there’s the rub. With so many ‘ordinary people’ of the opinion that mobile Safari is shit, Apple had to act. And they acted by allowing developers to create content blockers. Go ahead, try it: download Crystal. Suddenly, those Independent and Guardian web pages appear instantly. Orders of magnitude quicker. Mobile Safari is fast. Your £600-700 iPhone is fucking amazing. You have as much computing power in your pocket as you’d have found in a laptop of a few years ago. This technology is remarkable. But those scripts, those trackers, those possibly fraudulent ads, were slowing everything down (and hogging your data).

And as soon as the public got hold of these blockers, the publishers started howling. Marco Arment released one, Peace, that he’d been quietly working on without talking about it on his podcast. It went straight to the top of the App charts. Something that the techies might have thought was just for them turns out to be of appeal to ‘ordinary people’. The content appears: the ads don’t. Everything is quicker.

The problem, of course, is that if the ads don’t load, the publishers don’t get paid. Nor do the ad networks, but I have less sympathy for (most of) them, because this situation is their fault. Some ad networks (like The Deck) don’t serve nasty ads, and yet their ads too are blocked. So sites like Daring Fireball and Six Colors are losing revenue. I think because of this, because some of his colleagues and friends were suffering, Mr Arment had a change of heart. He withdrew Peace from the store after two days. I think he was expecting Overcast levels of interest, and the success shocked him.

The publishers have always had this problem. But (with the exception of those smart enough to use the less-is-more approach of Daring Fireball) it’s of their own making. They’ve been giving away their content for free for too long and trying to pay for it with levels of advertising that cross the line in terms of intrusion and invasion of privacy. Some of them (in the UK) have tried to blame the BBC for this, but although the BBC news content is free, it’s also pretty shit, Ceefax quality, and no competition for the newspapers with their campaigning and political agendas, which the BBC can’t follow. No, the free model was the publisher’s own fault, and now they need to do what they should have done fifteen years ago, and look more seriously at subscriptions and micro-payments, or even short “sponsor-read” type articles which follow the podcast advertising model and are less annoying.

Most of all, advertisers and ad networks need to stop fucking tracking people’s online habits. Leave us our privacy and remember: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

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