AdMop vs Springer — Our story

Last year by the time iOS 9 was released I worked on an app for iPhonso GmbH, my company, with my good old friend Vikram Kriplaney.

We were starting to grow tired of web ads on mobile. Many were even malicious. Popular sites like Engadget were automatically redirecting users to the App Store. Other ads were shown in full screen on top of the website with an almost impossible X to close it on the corner.

Even worse is the fact that Ads are a threat to our security and our privacy. As Douglas Crockford (Mr. JavaScript) once said: “The most reliable, cost-effective method to inject evil code is to buy an ad.”

And in this dark time Apple listened and blessed the developer community with Safari Content Blocking for iOS 9.

We finally had a tool that could block URLs, tracking networks, and hide or prevent the download of all kind of web elements, such as HTML tags, images, cookies, fonts…

So… Enough of this. Let’s build a Safari Content Blocker.

coding coding coding

One week later…

Once the content blocker hit the App Store it became mildly popular. With around 20,000 downloads, support requests were taking a lot of our time, and since this is just a hobby for us we decided to stop them by making AdMop a paid app.

Downloads stopped, support requests went down, life continued. We built what we thought would be the latest and greatest contribution to the app: whitelisting, a block rules editor, better UI and more ads blocked. And we let the app be forgotten in that massive dungeon called the App Store…

When we last checked our app was showing up in the 50th position for ‘Ad Blocker’. That is what I call being irrelevant.

… till the 4th of March. It was an awesome day. Spring was coming, my daughter went to the kindergarten with all smiles, I was full of energy and I got a Chinese drone by post… along with a 200 pages lawsuit against iPhonso GmbH (my company) for copyright damages, by some dudes called Axel Springer.

Axel Springer what? Who are those guys?

They are one of the biggest media companies in Europe. They are the ones who want to shut down Ad Block Plus and Blockr. They want Google to pay them for every news snippet they show in Germany. And they made a record 559 million earnings in 2015. Somebody recently told us that they are behaving like a spoiled child who suddenly has a new toy.

They never contacted us, they never tried of understand the usage of our app. They went straight for us. They claim that our software interferes with their systems and modifies their software. They insinuate that we block ads against the user’s consent. Their 200 pages claim does not try to even explain how an iOS content blocker works. It does not state how difficult it is to activate. It even contains a sample contract of one of their employees.

And we had 14 days to answer to the court.

We contacted Christian Laux, a very good Swiss lawyer. We also talked with Arno Appenzeller form Blockr, who introduced us to Niklas Haberkamm, our current lawyer. We contacted Apple via their Web Technologies Evangelist. They never replied. Apple is ignoring their developer community: they gave us ad blocking technology (content blocking) and washed their hands. If Apple feels so strong about privacy and user rights maybe they should do a bit more here.

Apple: Are you reading this? Privacy? User Rights? Does it ring a bell?

We have been building our defense based upon the right of users to decide. We claim that Axel Springer is wrong because we never force ad blocking on people. Our users have to download our app, follow a non trivial configuration path to activate it and manually update to the latest block rules. On top of that they can whitelist the websites they want.

Meanwhile Firefox, Opera and several mobile phone manufacturers are starting to integrate Ad Blocking. Let’s be fair here: this is not a battle against ads. Ads can be great and non intrusive at the same time. But current ads track and monitor us and increase bandwidth consumption. And those are the good ones. There are also ads which are deceitful and infect our systems with all short of malware and Trojans.

Current Ad networks are just brokering platforms which do not care if the ad follows adheres to some kind of standard that ensures their quality. They only care about delivering ads for the highest price possible.

Ads, in their current state, are dangerous.

If Axel Springer wants to take us out, I do not feel a lawsuit is the way to go. They have to rethink how current ad technologies work and adapt them to the current times. Otherwise they might win this battle, but they will lose the war.

So what is the situation right now? Aside from going to court on May 3, we contacted the Swiss media. We called Henning Steier, a journalist working for NZZ, one of the most prestigious Swiss newspapers. He called all the parties involved: Axel Springer and our lawyers. And he wrote an article based on facts:

http://www.nzz.ch/digital/admop-teurer-zuercher-werbeblocker-ld.12153

Summary:

Axel Springer says that users are not free to see editorial content without ads, and we are violating their copyright because we replace the ads with something else. Despite the fact that bild.de shows a landing page which forces the user to buy a subscription or deactivate the ad blocker.

Their real foe is Eyeo GmbH, which has already won six cases. They are not without controversy, since they sell whitelisting. By defeating us and other indie developers, Axel Springer is building a case for the final ruling against Eyeo GmbH.

Firefox, Asus, Opera… everybody is doing ad blocking now.

Axel springer went as far as going against a youtuber because he gave instructions to how to disable bild.de’s anti-ad-blocking technology

It seems that if you do something that Axel Springer does not like, you are doing something illegal. It is disturbing that there are legal systems which let these big corporations sue, again and again, for the same reasons, all over the place everywhere in the country and beyond. They’ve lost several times, but they keep on trying, and they will eventually win. Money and power always win.

An ad blocker is a piece of software which is very similar to a firewall. It blocks content from being loaded from predefined URLs and it programmatically hides ads. But make no mistake: it is the user who decides to use it.

Furthermore, ad blockers, specially iOS content blockers, are trivial to detect and to circumvent. Axel Springer could easily render every iOS content blocker useless would they desire to do so.

And now for the translation of the article that appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ):

Expensive Zürich Ad Blocker

For the first time, Axel Springer takes a Swiss company, iPhonso GmbH, to court.

Sebastian Vieira and Vikram Kriplaney were surprised when they recently got a thick post from the German media company Axel Springer. The contents of the 196 page letter was read by the two founders and the Zürich lawyer Christian Laux: iPhonso GmbH is to be prohibited by the Court of Hamburg to distribute their app, AdMop, which has been sold since September for two Swiss Francs. The developers face a fine of up to 250,000 euros.

“We see Springer’s lawsuit as unjustified interference in the consumer’s freedom of choice, and have therefore decided not to give up without a fight” said Kriplaney to the NZZ. Like his colleague, he works full-time for the directories service local.ch. AdMop is just a “favorite hobby” of the two software engineers.

Apple ad blockers were officially available on Safari with the launch of iOS 9. Apps like AdMop allow iOS users not only to remove Ads, but also weed out so-called tracking cookies for mobile surfing. Thanks to this technology users can browse anonymously. Ad blocker users benefit from shorter page load times, lower data usage while browsing and they can also protect their privacy on the Web .

Advertising as a primary source of income

For many media companies ad blockers are a pain. The business of paid content on the net does not work well. We read in the mentioned letter that Axel Springer that achieved only five percent of their revenue from subscriptions.

A final judgment in the case against the ad block market leader Eyeo GmbH, creator of AdBlock Plus, is likely to have to wait a few years. Therefore, Axel Springer has started to play against similar apps, to create warning and legal precedents. Another reason for such legal activity is that Eyeo GmbH has recently won its fifth trial. The suing company was the Munich newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung”. They can appeal against the verdict for Axel Springer, RTL Interactive, ProSiebenSat.1 and time Online / Handelsblatt cases.

Left to right: Vikram Kriplaney and Sebastian Vieira
Left to right: Vikram Kriplaney and Sebastian Vieira

In December, the district court of Hamburg gave Axel Springer a partial success. Eyeo cannot show how to use their ad blocker for the newspaper bild.de. In addition, bild.de shows a banner when a visitor has an ad blocker installed. This feature, which prompts the user to disable the ad blocker or subscribe to the newspaper, is active since autumn. The business model of Eyeo GmbH is also a bit controversial. Companies can pay to be included in a whitelist and get their ads through.

Axel Springer has taken another stance with welt.de:

“We think about tier payment models, for which ads are shown according to a subscription”. On welt.de there is no action against the users of Ad Blockers, although this could change any time. “We can see here that there is clearly an example, in which the inadmissibility of Ad Blockers should be determined by a court” said Dr. Niklas Haberkamm to NZZ, the lawyer of iPhonso GmbH and partner at LHR in Cologne. Here we can see that the signs of the time we live on are clearly misunderstood. Ad blockers, used by mature Internet users independently and according to their ideas, are pushing the market forward.

Apple is not alone

“Besides Apple, the popular browser Mozilla Firefox is since its last update (version 42) bundled with an Ad Blocker. Likewise Opera. Even the hardware manufacturer Asus has started to preinstall already active Ad blockers in the browser of their devices. All this development shows that Springer, with its vision, cannot be right”

And what does Axel Springer hope to gain by taking down small developers? AdMop has reported around 20,000 downloads and not even 5,000 Swiss Francs in profit. Would it not be better to wait for the outcome of the mentioned proceedings against Eyeo GmbH? “Each single adblocker offer is illegal, and we have to go against such offerings too. By bringing to court all the various individual cases we are preparing a court decision regarding the subjects of Ad Blockers in general”, said the Springer media spokesman Knud Andresen to NZZ. Replying to the fact that many users feel harassed by intrusive advertising, he said that “every user is free, free to use — but not free to be without ads — to use the offerings of Axel Springer”. Furthermore, it is in the interest of the company, the advertising industry and other partners to promote user-friendly ads.

Unused ad content

The WeltN24 GmbH submits in the current procedure claims for violation of copyright and competition law. According to iPhonso Attorney Niklas Haberkamm this does not happen: “The ads which are blocked by an ad blocker stay unused, so there is no duplication or otherwise copyright-related action. Furthermore reason plays against the argumentation of Springer too in which there is no copyright protected bundle of editorial content and ads, which a user can only use in combination”. As it has already been said, the legitimate consumption of editorial content could be easily prevented by Springer, would this happen to be showing without ads.

Also a competition law disability is according Haberkamm not right: “Springer fails to recognize that it is always the user who decides freely whether and how he intends to use the Adblocker and that the user has the rights to decide about not seeing any advertisement”. Attorney Haberkamm has enforced these arguments in a similar case before the District court Stuttgart against WeltN24 GmbH already for another client. “Currently this procedure is in the appeal before the Oberlandesgericht Stuttgart. We are confident that our arguments will convince the judge in Hamburg.”

YouTuber in court

The firm Lampmann, Haberkamm & Rosenbaum represents the way also the German YouTuber Tobias Richter, who provided once a guide in the net about how to bypass the ad blocker lock at bild.de. This process takes place according Haberkamm: “After Bild GmbH & Co. KG, despite repeated announcements to take legal action against our client, did nothing, we have now raised claims against these negative declarations before the Landgericht Berlin on behalf of our client. Springer has announced that it will take action before the Landgericht in Hamburg.”

That is all!

If you are curious about what is all the fuss about, you can download AdMop here

And we still have some invites left. Feel free to tweet us at @iPhonsoGmbH and we will send you an invite so that you can get AdMop for free.

Thanks for reading our story, the iPhonso GmbH team.