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This article was published on November 26, 2015

Is adblocking pro-consumer, the end of free content… or both?

Is adblocking pro-consumer, the end of free content… or both?
Ben Woods
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Ben Woods

Europe Editor

Ben is a technology journalist with a specialism in mobile devices and a geeky love of mobile spectrum issues. Ben used to be a professional Ben is a technology journalist with a specialism in mobile devices and a geeky love of mobile spectrum issues. Ben used to be a professional online poker player. You can contact him via Twitter or on Google+.

The debate around adblocking is one that’s likely to rage for a while longer, but using a plugin in your mobile or desktop browser is a wholly different proposition to stopping every ad on every site before it ever gets to your device.

That’s the service that Shine, a network level adblocking service, provides for its mobile network operator customers.

The impact of that is one that could well lead to a fundamental shift in the way in which advertising is approached – and that might not be a bad thing – ads ruin your online experience, right? But it also might be. Advertising pays for the websites and services you use every day for free.

Without it, there’s no financial model in place for most to survive.

Amid this scene of pro-ad tech companies, anti-ad tech companies and publishers all shouting about the ongoing shifts in the industry, Shine says the game is already over. Ads as we know them are done.

It’s not what Shine set out to do though. It had intended to become another anti-virus vendor. However, it quickly saw parallels between malware and ads, particularly in the case of operators and end-users, according to Roi Carthy, CMO of Shine.

“The impact of adtech on infrastructure – the antennas, that kind of thing –  on the carrier’s side, is significant – much bigger than they knew. The impact on the subscriber – privacy, battery, user experience – was significant as well.

What we noticed was that it was behaving much like malware. It’s not all that surprising when you think about it; it’s called targeting and tracking. They’re not even trying to mask the words – it is what it is, right?

How do you do cross-device targeting? That’s NSA stuff; that’s literally what they do.”

Carthy says that digital ads, particularly mobille, are “no less malicious or sophisticated” as online security threats.

It takes cybersecurity, white-hat hacking, militant intelligence people to be able to control adtech…Why do you need those sorts of people to stop something like this? That’s a shocker, but it is true.

For the first time, consumers now have military-grade protection from adtech. You have anti-virus to protect youfrom malicious hackers or whatever but what do people have in terms of advertising. They have nothing.”

Yes – there are financial benefits for carriers, but the real reason he says they love it is because it allows them to take a ‘consumer champion’ approach – it’s not a position they get to take very often.

The main theme is consumer protection, there’s no question about it, but let’s not be naive, they’ve felt for many years that they’ve had the short end of the stick and have been abused by OTTs, adtech, whatever you want to call this stuff.”

In this Carthy says Shine offers a way to redress that balance.

By placing its technology in Digicell’s datacenters, one of the only companies to publicly announce it’s using Shine’s adblocker, ads are stopped before they get to a customer’s handset – but the system doesn’t block native advertising, so sponsored content or native product experiences remain unaltered.

“The reason we don’t [remove native advertising] is two-fold.

Number one is that the carriers haven’t asked us to. While they’re not totally happy about it, they feel it’s a little more genuine in terms of user experience than third-party ad networks for end-users.

Secondly, we don’t do it because we can’t provide a proper user experience. We won’t give you a broken user experience [in place of] an abusive user experience. And frankly, there’s so much garbage out there that we can help remove in terms of pollution that we can leave native stuff for a while.

Carthy says Shine is in talks with other networks around the world too, though he wouldn’t say which ones. It’s a move that seems like a bit of a no-brainer for the operators – reduce costs and increase consumer happiness in one fell swoop.

EE is the latest company considering using network level adblocking, though there’s no suggestion it would be via Shine’s tools. O2 is also mulling a similar move for its 25 million customers.

Carthy says Shine is in talks with networks around the world, though he wouldn’t say which ones.

He’s not naive about the nature of adtech though. It’s not an industry powered by shrinking violets.

“This is a fire versus fire type of situation. Adtech isn’t done. They’re not like, “Oh, now these adblockers are here we’re going home.” They’re going to find ways to circumvent it.

We’re the good guys. We’ve always developed technologies that stop some sort of abuse, be it criminal or government…

This is a huge consumer story. The ability to stop adtech and be able to have a choice is a consumer issue. Anybody who thinks this is an adtech issue or telco issue is not looking at the big picture.”


The topic of adblocking is one that splits me. On one hand, there’s the (totally self-interested) fact that my living depends on ad money. Quite simply, without ads, I’d have no job as the publishing industry stands today.

On the other side of that, I’m a consumer too – and ads are as annoying to me as anyone else.

However, the line that Carthy is spinning isn’t one that quite adds up to me. He puts forward the suggestion of network level ad-blocking as a championing move for consumers, making it analoguos with removing ‘pollution’ from the streets.

Up to a point, that’s fine but who decides which ads are ‘pollutants’ and which aren’t?

And if ad spend money dries up as a result of the decreased reach, then the sites hosting those ads will also likely follow suit. A pro-consumer move that reduces free access to information doesn’t look quite as ‘pro-consumer’ as it first might.

Naturally, this is a point I put to Carthy, but not one he could agree with. Instead, he thinks ‘innovation’ from the publishing industry will step in to stop this happening, and that only the lowest value content will fail to survive.

“Innovation is a wonderful thing. Back when the internet began, newspapers were panicking and rightfully so, but is there any less information [now]? No. Is it any less biting? Is there any less investigation? No, it’s actually very, very good.

The fact that there are less newspapers, did that impact the quality or volume? I don’t actually think it did.”

I’m not sure that, given the mass migration of high-profile journalists into ‘comms’ or PR roles that I could agree with the assertion that journalism hasn’t taken a knock in the last five years.

The way he sees it, the publishing industry needs to continually adapt to changing conditions – and that adblocking is just another part of that. And in some ways, that’s true.

“After the technological revolution it was social… Then it was mobile.

The publishing industry seems to freak out every five years, and then stuff gets figured out.

Not everybody figures it out, newspapers and sites fell along the way… At the same time, we didn’t know Vox or Vice two years ago…

What we’re saying is [the way in which this is monetised], the ‘best practices’ that have been happening for the last 15 years, it’s done.

There’s not even a conversation about that any more. Everybody was relying on fairly improper – what consumers are saying is improper – monetisation practices.”

Of course, a tech founder’s favorite word – ‘innovation’ – is always the answer, and Carthy is probably correct about that, but I feel like his argument is flawed.

“The answer to that, in reality, is going to be innovation. People are going to have to innovate in the way they monetize and be a little more respectful.

The same argument could have been said about DVRs and cable and all that stuff…

I don’t agree with this concept that adblocking will lead to less information or less free information. Those are fairly cheap arguments.

There will be causalities, that’s perfectly fine, not everybody should survive. I’d also argue that there are many, many outlets that don’t deserve to exist right now. They’re not producing enough quality content or monetisation that is equal to that.”

Who decides those casualties? What content will we lose? If a blog with ‘low quality’ content currently survives due to its popularity (and therefore ad revenue), will those masses of readers feel like they’re getting a pro-consumer move when their go-to site folds? Probably not.

The irony, of course, is that the smallest independent blogs are the ones that will also be hit. Hosting a server to keep your tiny community alive costs money. It might not be your full-time job, but perhaps those ‘low quality’ ads keep the service ticking over.

Alas, your community will be no more.

That’s just tough in Shine’s world, just try and keep in mind that it’s for your own sake.

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