My three-part series covering the recent spurt of ad blocking software was supposed to be simple. Part one dealt with uBlock Origin for desktop browsers. Part two took a look at the new Adblock Browser for Android and iOS, from the developers of Adblock Plus. In order to write part three, all I had to do was wait for Apple to release iOS 9, update my iPhone, and find and test a third-party add-on ad blocking extension. What I got instead was a bit of drama, when three ad-blocking extensions raced to the top of the iTunes store’s paid app category soon after iOS 9 was released — and then one was promptly pulled.
The app, Peace: Block Ads and Trackers, Powered by Ghostery, hit the number-one spot and stayed there until its superstar developer, Marco Arment (Tumblr co-founder and developer of the popular Instapaper and Overcast iOS apps), pulled the app from the store two days later, saying it “just doesn’t feel right.” Ghostery, which developed the filter Marco used in his app, clarified their joint position by saying: “Specifically, the black-and-white, all on/all off approach to content blocking in Peace ran counter to our core belief that these aren’t black-and-white decisions.”
By comparison, uBlock Origin lets you choose to unblock on a per-website basis. Adblock Browser uses Adblock Plus’s “acceptable ads” EasyList to decide which ads will be allowed to be displayed on a web page.
Nearly two weeks after iOS 9’s release, the $1.99 Purify Blockerremains in the iTunes App Store’s top 50 paid apps list at number 6 (as of October 4, 2015), indicating consumers’ continued interest in blocking ads in mobile Safari. Unlike the former best-selling Peace blocker, Purify lets the user maintain a whitelist of sites whose ads will be allowed to pass through its filter. This content blocker appears to be a less-blunt instrument than Peace. And the Crystal ad block extension’s developer said he will work with Eyeo (which produces Adblock Plus) to use its acceptable-ads whitelist.
Not all iPhone and iPad models can make use of ad-blocking extensions — they only work on iOS devices with 64-bit processors. This means the oldest devices that support the extensions are the iPhone 5s, the iPad mini 2, and the iPad air. Apple says this is thanks to the performance limitations of 32-bit devices. Note that the option to turn content blocking on in iOS doesn’t appear in the Settings menu until you actually install one of the content-blocking extensions.
I received what seemed to me a strongly worded tweet soon after we published the first two parts of this ad blocker article series. It read:
“Internet ads are life blood of marketing, journalism. If no ads, your fav media disappears #NoAdBlocking”
This assumes the the web is some kind of inflexible unchanging entity. In reality, advertisers and websites will have to adjust — just as they have through the years, such as when pop-up window blocking became the default option in web browsers to prevent annoying pop-up and pop-under windows. While misbehaving and even malicious web ads will continue to make some people feel the need to block ads, the mainstream industry will eventually have to react and reach some kind of armistice with the blockers.
Google’s Senior Vice President of Ads & Commerce, Sridhar Ramaswamy, said in an on-stage interview that he “thinks crappy ad experiences are behind the uptick in ad-blocking tools, and that Google, along with the advertising and publishing industries, is obliged to come up with a fix,” as Re/Code reported. “We need to recognize, as an industry, that this is something we need to deal with. We need to work together to come up with a definition of what an acceptable ad is and what an acceptable ads program can be.”
The vast majority of people do not mind ads all that much. What bothers them are the ones that ruin the web experience. An article in The New York Times looked at ads on 50 mobile sites and found an interesting spectrum of load times for ads versus content. Boston.com, for example, had 15.4 megabytes of ads which took 30.8 seconds to load. Its content was 4 megabytes and took 8.1 seconds to load. On the other end was the smallest overall mobile website, USAToday.com. Its ads were a mere 0.4 megabytes (400 kilobytes) and its home page content was one megabyte large, which resulted in load times of 0.8 and 2 seconds for the ads and content, respectively.
It’s also still possible for all kinds of ad annoyance to get through ad blockers. A recent Security Now podcast (#527) points out LingsCars.com, a horrifying-but-useful site specifically designed to demonstrate an amazing array of annoying ad types that will get through desktop and mobile ad blockers. (Go there at your own risk.)