The tide of popular sentiment is turning against tracking-based advertising — and Apple knows it. That’s why they’re enabling “content blocking” in iOS 9 (the new mobile operating system that will soon go in your iPhone and iPad).
Says Apple, “Content Blocking* gives your extensions a fast and efficient way to block cookies, images, resources, pop-ups, and other content.”
This is aimed straight at tracking-based advertising, known in the trade as adtech.* And Apple isn’t alone:
[*Note: far I know, there was not a term for tracking-based advertising until adtech seemed to emerge as the front-runner. I chose it for this post because others (e.g. the first two examples above) have done the same. Tell me a better word and I’ll swap it in. And if you want to know why we need to distinguish between advertising based on tracking people and advertising that is not, read my last post, Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.]
Here’s Apple’s tech-speak on the feature:
Your app extension is responsible for supplying a JSON file to Safari. The JSON consists of an array of rules (triggers and actions) for blocking specific content. Safari converts the JSON to bytecode, which it applies efficiently to all resource loads without leaking information about the user’s browsing back to the app extension.
This means the iOS platform will now support developers who want to build sophisticated apps that give users ways to block stuff they don’t like, such as adtech tracking and various forms of advertising — or all advertising — and to do it privately.
This allows much more control over unwanted content than is provided currently by ad and tracking blockers on Web browsers, and supports this control at the system level, rather than at the browser level. (Though it is executed by the browser.)
- Remove advert banners, blocks, popovers, autoplay videos, App Store redirects & invisible tracking scripts that follow you around the web.
- Pages render more than 3.9x faster on average**.
- Reduces data use by 53% on average**.
[**Benchmarks calculated from a selection of random pages from 10 popular sites.]
All three of these address obvious appetites by customers in the marketplace:
- To avoid ads, and being tracked.
- To speed things up.
- To minimize data usage, for which mobile carriers charge money.
In iOS 9 content blocking will transform the mobile Web: I’ve tried it., Owen Williams (@ow) of TheNextWeb gives Crystal a spin, finding it delivers on its promises.
If I read Owen right, he believes Content Blocking will have two results:
- Publishers will lose, because they depend on advertising that will be blocked; and
- Apple will win, because publishers will be driven to the company’s News app, on which Apple can make money with its own advertising system, called iAd. [Since then discontinued. See the note at the end of this piece.]
While these assumptions might be correct, they are part of a much larger picture, which will surely change as content blockers such as Crystal get adopted. So let’s look at that picture.
- The market is very unhappy with abuses to personal privacy. Studies by Pew, TRUSTe, Customer Commons and Wharton all make clear that more than 90% of the connected population doesn’t like privacy abuse on the commercial Web. Following people with tracking cookies and beacons violates their privacy. This is a big reason why ad and tracking blocking, through popular browser extensions and add-ons, is already high and continues to go up. It is therefore safe to say that iOS apps like Crystal will be very popular.
- There are two kinds of advertising at issue here, and it is essential to separate them (which I do, at length, in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff). One is tracking-based advertising, or adtech. That’s the kind that wants to get personal, and depends on spying on people. The other is plain old brand advertising, which isn’t based on tracking, and is targeted at populations rather than individuals. Content Blocking is aimed squarely at adtech.
- Apple’s iAd is for brand advertising, not adtech. At least that’s what I gather from Apple’s literature. (See here, here, here and here.) This puts them on the side of wheat, and Apple’s competitors — notably Google, Facebook and all of adtech — on the side of chaff.
- Apple has put a big stake in the ground on the subject of privacy. This is clearly to differentiate itself from adtech in general, and from Google and Facebooks in particular.
- Brand advertising is more valuable to publishers than adtech. Its provenance and value are clear and obvious and it sells for better prices. Also, while some of it may be annoying, none of it shares its business model with spam, which adtech does. And brand advertising uncorrupted by fraud, which is rampant in adtech — so rampant, in fact, that T.Rob Wyatt, a security expert, calls adtech “the new digital cancer.”
This is why content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech. It is also why everybody involved in the advertising-funded online ecosystem should start separating the wheat from the chaff, and to make clear that the wheat — plain old non-tracking-based brand advertising — is (to mix metaphors) the baby in the advertising bathwater that users will start throwing out with their content blockers.
However it goes down, the inevitable results, long term, will be these:
- Brand advertising (the non-tracking-based kind) will be seen again as the most legitimate form of advertising.
- Brand advertising will again be credited for doing the good work of funding publishers (also broadcasters, podcasters and the rest).
- Adtech, and spying in general, will be shunned, as it deserves to be.
- Adtech will still live on, rehabilitated and cleansed, as a trusted symbiote of users who give clear and unambiguous permission for trackers they bless to dwell in their private spaces and give them optimal personalized advertising experiences.
In other words, what I said at the close of the Advertising Bubble chapter of The Intention Economy will come true:
When the backlash is over, and the advertising bubble deflates, advertising will remain an enormous and useful business. We will still need advertising to do what only it can do. What will emerge, however, is a market for what advertising can’t do. This new market will be defined by what customers actually want, rather than guesses about it.
* As a term, “content blocking” is an unfortunate choice, since until now it meant government censorship. But the deed is done. From this point forward it means you get to block stuff you don’t want happening on your mobile device.
Later (2:36pm) — So I tweeted this post here, not long after it went up, and the response is split between yea and nay (though mostly yea). Since I have no argument with the yeas, I’ll take on the nays…
it is offensive to us who work in adtech by day and nurse the result of cancer by night, at home. disappointing metaphor.
No offence to @dsearls but comparing ad tech to cancer is beyond hyperbole. FACT: ad tech has been keeping the internet free since 1993
@dsearls Couldn’t imagine a stupider, more offensive title. Ad tech is what makes free online content viable, like it or not.
No offence taken. Or meant to be given. Cancer is a common metaphor for many things that are not. So is chemo: a medicine that sickens a patient while killing (or at least trying to kill) his or her cancer. Tell me a better metaphor and I’ll gladly use it. (I have also experienced loved ones dying of cancer, and I’m not sure they would have disapproved of the metaphor.)
As for hyperbole, guilty as charged. I’m making a strong point here, and one almost nobody else (other than Don Marti and Bob Hoffman) is making — or has seen sunk in. The market sentiment against surveillance-based marketing — aka adtech — is strong, growing, and almost entirely ignored by the whole adtech business.
As for Apple’s nature as a company, they are hardly pure. In fact, there is a vast inconsistency between what they’re doing on the B2C side with Content Blocking and on the B2B side with adtech.
On the B2C side, which is 99+% of what Apple does, the company works on behalf of its paying customers. This is huge, because there isn’t a customer on Earth who wants to be tracked like an animal without clear and explicit permission, or to have pages slowed by tracking cookies, beacons and ads fed by unknown and unwelcome servers. Especially on mobile. Apple knows this because they talk on the phone and in stores every day with those customers. They’ve also seen abundant research (some cited above) that makes clear how much people hate having their privacy violated, which Adtech does with abundant impunity. Meanwhile adtech doesn’t talk to those customers. It only follows them. Ain’t the same.
On the B2B side, Apple with iAd has been in the adtech business from the start, in 2010. (I visit all this in my next post.) While they don’t allow third party cookies or tracking, they do allow advertisers to aim their ads based on what Apple knows about you from your iTunes and App Store purchases, plus other intelligence the company gathers from its interactions with you. This is adtech, pure and simple.
So yes, Apple is having it both ways.
I suspect Apple will reconcile the two by pushing non-tracking-based brand ads for higher prices. If they do that, both publishers and brands will appreciate the lack of reader confusion about the provenance and motives of those ads. But I don’t know. We’ll see.
Next, saying adtech (or anything) has kept the Net free is like saying coupon flyers have kept geology free. The Net was born free and remains that way. Same goes for the Web. They support an infinite variety of sites, services and activities, and not just commercial ones. (More about that here, here and here.)
In fact, commercial activity was impossible on the Internet before NSFnet (the one non-commercial network within the Internet) stood down on 30 April 1995. After that ecommerce took off. (Amazon and eBay were both born in ’95.) So did advertising, but not as fast. Adtech (or ad tech) didn’t take off until well after the turn of the millennium.
This blog has been free and viable since 1998, by the way, without an ounce of advertising. So has everything Dave Winer‘s done. Without Dave we wouldn’t have blogging, syndicating (e.g. RSS) or podcasting as we know it.
Something worth thinking about: if we had jobbed out inventing and developing the Net and the Web to commercial interests, would they even exist?
@dsearls what did the NSFnet bring, that it started “commercial activity” on the net and say not hotwired in 1994 with ad banners?
The Internet is a collection of networks united by agreements called protocols. Those protocols said data should be passed between any one end and any other end over any path available, on a best effort basis. This means the data you send to me could go over any path on any network between us on the whole thing called the Internet. This also meant that if any one network forbid one kind of activity, it would do for the whole internetwork. Because the NSFnet (National Science Foundation Network) forbid commercial activity on itself, and the NSFnet was a member of the Internet, it forbid commercial activity for the whole thing. So, when the NSFnet went down on 30 April, 1995, it opened the whole Internet to commercial activity. That’s a short version. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend Wikipedia’s article on the NSFnet.
I can think of nothing that has done more harm to the internet than adtech.
It is a plague. It interferes with virtually everything we try to do on the web. It has cheapened and debased advertising. It has helped spawn criminal empires. It is in part responsible for unprecedented fraud and corruption. It has turned marketing executives into clueless baboons. And it is destroying the idea of privacy, one of the backbones of democracy.
And for what? 8 clicks in 10,000 impressions?
But maybe there is hope for those of us who hate adtech.
Sure hope I’m right.
[Later (15 January 2016)…] Apple let develpers know that iAd will be discontinued.