AMITIAE - Friday 4 September 2015
Cassandra: Ad-blocking in iOS - Implications for Users and Site Owners
By Graham K. Rogers
A fairly clear explanation of how the ad blocking is expected to work is provided in an article by Abhimanyu Ghoshal on TNW. This appears to indicate that third-party extensions may be needed to make the feature viable, with one or two caveats. Other useful background is in an item by Sam Oliver on AppleInsider, while Jim Lynch on CIO outlines ad-blocking, expressing some confidence that it will not be a disaster for publishers as the feature is for iOS devices not browsers on computers. His assertion that "Those ads will never, ever be blockable" may be so for now; but that guarantees nothing for the future.
As a frequent user of the web, however, I am all too aware of the interference from some advertisements, particularly those that cover the text I am reading. A more recent type is the video that auto-loads. It may take some effort to find and stop; and this is even harder if a selection of tabs is reopened.
There is a solution to this in a new version of Safari: an icon appears to indicate which pages contain such content, also allowing the sound to be muted.
A number of people (including the author) were surprised by the number of invisible advertisements inflicted on users, with the obvious slow-downs that these would bring about. An implication is that not only is the user being penalised, but the sites may be "paying for traffic that just isn't there."
This is not just something that happens with the web-browser. Many mail messages are stuffed with extra media - images, advertisements, links - that slow down the basic task of reading a message. I have Little Snitch and find that sometimes I have to click on up to 8 "Accept" panels before I am allowed to read the email. The alternative would be to press Accept for all and that could well open other doors.
On some sites I access with the browser, I find that panels block my view of the content I am trying to read, while in other cases complete pages are opened on sites that I (usually) have no interest in. Perhaps some site owners have lost sight of the purpose of providing online content: alienating the reader may be more damaging economically than other perceived drops in readership. There are several sites that I now think twice about visiting, precisely because of this obtrusiveness.
This decline was recognised a few years ago and the documentary Black and White and Dead All Over focussed on the changing landscape of journalism in Philadelphia with the growing appeal of the Internet, where anyone can become a publisher (for good or bad). Some have made the mistake of downsizing.
Like the Inquirer, the Chicago Sun-Times had had several Pulitzer Prize-winners and the closure of its Photography Department - reporters were to be retrained to use smartphone video cameras. The resultant reduction in quality was a mistake.
Another feature of news displays on the Internet has been the unwanted video. I initially blocked Flash videos, then removed Flash completely after instability in the Mac and countless reports about security problems with the plug-in. That has not stopped video displays, many of which auto-run and may not be visible when reading a page.
This is a particular problem when a series of tabs is reloaded and the automatically-loading video is playing on one of the tabs. The ability to turn off sound from the URL window in El Capitan was demonstrated by Apple at the last World Wide Developers' Conference in June. This was well-received by those in the audience.
Publishers and owners of many sites are not in the same position. They need to earn income from the online (and sometimes) print versions of their output, but have yet to strike a balance between excessive amounts (and types) of advertising that alienate the user and other ways in which income may be derived, from a medium that has usually been regarded as free by most users. As some have discovered, paywalls are only effective when the content is unique, such as may be found on certain financial sites.
A balance is demonstrated in the use of advertising in apps on mobile devices. While many users may be happy to pay a few cents for the removal of in-app advertising, a great number see advertising as an acceptable penalty for a free app. As many of these do not obscure the operations or content of the app, this is reasonable. However, a few apps are now including advertising that takes over the screen. These are simply dismissed by pressing a close button, but the damage is done: rather than inform the user, they are more likely to annoy.
There is an intersection here that the publishers, site owners and users will have to deal with: providing content, monetization, accessibility.
Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.
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