Adblockers and the fracking of data

An inconvenient truth about digital content


I’ve decided to test the Safari Adblock extension in private beta directly with the Princeton student who’s developing it. I’m doing it for science and sharing my findings to encourage more public discourse about why the trust between content consumers and producers is rapidly collapsing.

If you can emoji, you can adblock.

Installing this Content Blocker into iOS9 public beta was as easy as adding a custom keyboard. Download and tap an app. It onboards by directing you to Settings > Safari > Content Blockers where you switch on the Safari Adblock extension. If you can use emoji on your iPhone, then you can block ads and adtech trackers with iOS9 and a third-party app.

We’ll see a pubilc directory of rule sets emerge on this platform.

Back in the Safari Adblock app, you activate adblocking and privacy protection as separate switches. The interface to build rules is hopelessly complex and nerdy. It would require a CS degree to whitelist The New York Times website at this early stage in development. Consider the implications however of how low the developer has prioritized the usability of whitelisting.

You’ll need a CS degree to pay your favorite publisher in ad revenue.

The content industry is starting to ask users to whitelist their sites when Adblockers are detected. I wanted to test the ease of complying with this request. Laughably difficult, I advised the developer to work on whitelisting to resolve the striking assymetry between ease of blocking against unblocking. He’s not sure it will make it to the initial release.

Incidentally, while describing a new rule, I misstyped tracker to fracker. The metaphor applies. If Data is the new Oil, then “programmatic” seeks to prospect for new ad revenue streams, especially on mobile devices.

The adtech that powers programmatic ad buying works by fracking the fields of user data like a petrochemical operation, extracting value, refining and monetizing on a grand scale over a vastly complex wholesale market.

As the content industry starts to vocalize its concerns and counterstrategies to the rapid rise of adblocking adoption, the trackers that pepper every page start to look a lot like fracking wells. They tunnel deep into a place that they probably shouldn’t go, poisoning the well as they dig deeper toward personalization and retargeting. Consumers know they’re being stalked and most hate it. Those who don’t care so much about privacy are starting to lose their patience with adtech’s bloat, exposed as technology that’s ill-suited for mobile at scale because it drains batteries and data-plans, among other offenses. It literally sucks. It’s all a ridiculously toxic enteprise to avoid investing in alternatives to the Internet’s original sin: the fallacy that ad banner performance trumps branding.

Adblocking surges while an oversupply of digital ads and media inventory drives down price and performance in a dramatic race to the bottom. It’s a textbook macroeconomic story of a near-perfect market pushing cost to marginal and product to commodity. It’s happening in energy markets with fracking and advertising with programmatic.

“the fallacy that ad banner performance trumps branding”

It brings us to the question to round out the fracking metaphor that might lead to a lasting solution for sustainability: What is the “renewable energy” for digital content and advertising? What new model could disrupt adtech data fracking and renew content creators’ ability to increase profitability and product control while rebuilding trust with consumers? Let’s not wreck the planet and let’s not kick publishers when they’re down.

Sponsored link recirculators like Outbrain and Taboola are blocked by default.

Let’s concede the final point, however. Fears about Adblocking on iPhones are inherently overblown. It’s safe to assume that the vast majority of iPhone users get their news from native apps like Facebook, Twitter, and news company apps.

Meanwhile, Content Blocking in iOS9 only affects the Safari app and does not affect the instances of the WebView that appear in other apps. Facebook and Twitter presumably won’t enable blocking in their in-app browsers, offering an ad-loving safe haven for adtech. Naturally, this will curry favor of publishers and advertisers alike or even nudge them torward proprietary but streamlined middleman formats like Instant Articles and Apple News Format.

The forthcoming Apple News app on iOS9 is a wonderfully decluttered and nicely personalized experience that boasts tight integration into the device with the sparkle of Apple’s more recent marketing spin of being a privacy-positive company.

Facebook’s Instant Article format, understood by industry observers as yet another Faustian bargain, is effectively an adblocking technique. It delivers a superior user experience precisely because it decrufts out the adtech, throwing Outbrain and other kinds of incremental revenue out with the bathwater.

Typical users blocking privacy frackers will see fewer ads and sponsored links when they tap links in email. These links open with Safari, now adblock-enabled. Given that some publishers are doubling down on (or exist solely as) email newsletters, there are going to be certain segments of ad revenue that will dissolve in correlation to Content Blocker app adoption.

The industry shall fix its gaze sternly upon the App Store download charts to diagnose the severity of the backlash against programmatic.

Special thanks to Aram Zucker-Scharff (@chronotope) for the lively tweetchat and draft feedback.