Well that’s quite a coincidence. The very same day Apple turned its News app into a mandatory blob on your home screen, it also rolled out ad blocking capabilities in iOS 9.
The day after iOS 9’s release, over ten percent of iOS users have already downloaded iOS 9, according to Paddle Analytics. That means thousands of people have discovered that they can’t get rid of the News app on their home screen. Meanwhile, those same people are probably rejoicing that Apple will finally allow ad blocking. Already, many ad blockers are vying to become the app of choice for the iOS set. So what’s the connection between these two seemingly unrelated iOS 9 shifts?
It starts with the rise of ad blockers over the past couple of years. Though these apps for blocking pop-ups and other annoying ads have been around for almost a decade, their use is currently skyrocketing. Partly this is because ads are getting more annoying — often they take over the whole browser, and it’s really hard to click through them. But it’s also because people are becoming more aware of how much these ads are tracking their behaviour online. Ever visit an online shoe shop and discover that ads for the shoes you just looked at keep popping up on every news site you visit for the next 24 hours? That’s because you’re being tracked and followed by advertisers. And it feels creepy.
As a result, consumers are fighting back with ad blockers and apps like Ghostery, which promises to prevent all manner of spyware from gumming up your devices and your privacy. And here’s where we get to the part about news websites, like the ones that you can read on your mandatory News app on iOS 9.
Because those news websites pay their writers and editors with revenues from the very ads that you’re blocking with the nifty new apps for iOS 9. Which is why the call to block ads is bound up with a call to change how you get news.
In mid-August, Instapaper creator Marco Arment issued this call for ethics in advertising and journalism:
Publishers don’t have an easy job trying to stay in business today, but that simply doesn’t justify the rampant abuse, privacy invasion, sleaziness, and creepiness that many of them are forcing upon their readers, regardless of whether the publishers feel they had much choice in the matter.
Modern web ads and trackers are far over the line for many people today, and they’ve finally crossed the line for me, too. Just as when pop-ups crossed the line fifteen years ago, technical countermeasures are warranted.
Web publishers and advertisers cannot be trusted with the amount of access that today’s browsers give them by default, and people are not obligated to permit their web browsers to load all resources or execute all code that they’re given.
Note that Arment bundles together “publishers and advertisers,” aiming his criticisms about ethics squarely at both. While some publishers took umbrage at his comments, others embraced it. Tech commentator John Gruber recently praised ad blocking on Daring Fireball, because his publishing model isn’t affected by it:
Perhaps I am being smug. But I see the fact that Daring Fireball’s revenue streams should remain unaffected by Safari content-blocking as affirmation that my choices over the last decade have been correct: that I should put my readers’ interests first, and only publish the sort of ads and sponsorships that I myself would want to be served, even if that means leaving (significant) amounts of money on the table along the way. But I take no joy in the fact that a terrific publication like The Awl might be facing hard times. They’re smart; they will adapt.
Gruber’s idea is that somehow ad blockers create social Darwinism for media — good publications like The Awl “will adapt.” If they die, well, they just weren’t fit for the new business environment. Over at the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo embraced the new ad blocker-driven model, too, suggesting that it will generate a better ad industry:
But in the long run, there could be a hidden benefit to blocking ads for advertisers and publishers: Ad blockers could end up saving the ad industry from its worst excesses. If blocking becomes widespread, the ad industry will be pushed to produce ads that are simpler, less invasive and far more transparent about the way they’re handling our data — or risk getting blocked forever if they fail.
Manjoo goes on to talk about a number of companies that are trying to turn ad blocking — especially the tracking spyware that often goes with it — into a cottage industry. Reforming ads may be “ethical,” but it’s also a business unto itself.
And that’s why it’s no surprise that Arment released his new ad blocker Peace yesterday, a £2.29 app for blocking ads on iOS 9. Huh. Nodding to issues that small publishers will face as ad blocking becomes the norm, he writes:
We shouldn’t feel guilty about this. The “implied contract” theory that we’ve agreed to view ads in exchange for free content is void because we can’t review the terms first — as soon as we follow a link, our browsers load, execute, transfer, and track everything embedded by the publisher. Our data, battery life, time, and privacy are taken by a blank check with no recourse. It’s like ordering from a restaurant menu with no prices, then being forced to pay whatever the restaurant demands at the end of the meal.
If publishers want to offer free content funded by advertising, the burden is on them to choose ad content and methods that their readers will tolerate and respond to.
Basically, we’ve returned to the social Darwinist argument again. It’s on the publishers to adapt to the new model or die. The problem is that it’s not that simple. Because companies like Apple aren’t just pushing publishers to get new kinds of ads — they are actively trying to supplant the place of those publishers with alternative news platforms. Like, well, Apple’s News app.
Casey Johnston argues exactly this over on The Awl. Ad blocking, she writes, is a harbinger of the platform age, where small publishers are eaten by companies like Google or Facebook:
What will these “better” ads look like? One answer is that as publications transition to becoming direct content providers for the social networks and platforms whose audiences they are currently borrowing, like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Google, perhaps Apple News (or Medium??)‚ many of the ads will be the same as before—placed in front of, beside, and between content—but sold and provided by the platform, rather than the publisher. Ad-blocking, insofar as it contributes to the decimation of advertising revenues, will hasten this exodus to the platforms.
And there is no way to block the ads shown to you by Facebook or Google or Twitter in their own apps, especially not on mobile. At that inflection point, the argument about how ad-blocking protects privacy by evading trackers also becomes largely irrelevant.
When you consider Johnston’s comments here, it becomes obvious why Apple would make its News app mandatory on the same day it’s blocking ads for the first time ever in iOS. It’s destroying media revenue models on two fronts: with ad blocking for the web, and an app for your phone.
This isn’t about protecting consumers. It’s about Apple getting into the business of serving you news, in an app where you’ll never be able to block ads or sponsored content or “native advertising” or whatever you want to call the same old game of making you want to buy expensive shit you don’t need. When all the small news sites go out of business because they can’t “adapt” to ad blocking, Apple’s News app is there for you. Oh and also? There’s a whole new market for apps like Peace and Blockr and all the others that will soon be stuffing the App Store.
You can bet that Apple News will track your interests and feed you ads, even if you have Peace installed. Maybe these are ads that you “tolerate and respond to” as Arment would have it. But it will also mean that nobody gets to publish a small news publication without sucking up to Apple and Facebook and Google and all the other platforms with so-called ethical native advertising.
You’re trading in one kind of trap for another. And both have brands glued all over them.