The Future is about Filters

You are what you block. Or enhance.

In the near future, it’s unlikely any two people will ever again have precisely the same interactive experience. We will subscribe to “filters” of every describable form, eventually paying for artificial intelligence that evolves its filtering, blocking and enhancement capabilities while spam and marketing robots evolve to counteract them.

Yet another kind of filter (neutral density)

Email spam filters are a well-known example of filters that have saved a medium in danger of being overrun by dreck. Email spam management evolved from highly manual “postmasters” at ISPs who would whitelist senders, to more automated mechanisms like “SenderScores” and sender authentication mechanisms like SPF, SenderID, and DKIM (Domainkeys Identified Mail). It has worked — spam levels are down to 2003 levels (‘According to our metrics, the overall spam rate has dropped to 49.7%. This is the first time this rate has fallen below 50 percent of email for over a decade.’), according to reports from Symantec, though falling spam levels lead them to conclude that malware activity is simply moving to other parts of the ecosystem.

Spam filters might today be one of the more fertile parts of the tech ecosystem for the development of artificial intelligence, per scifi writer Charles Stross (2010):


I still joke with tech journalists (getting 100–200 email pitches a day) that they need to charge PR firms a $395 fee to send them an email… either user agents or AI bots need to solve this, or simple supply and demand!

Advertising blocking, while only reaching public prominence recently (e.g. on South Park!), has been around since the earliest days of the Web, with early Netscape employees setting up their own proxy servers to block early annoying ad traffic, turning into commercial features to block the infamous “popups” and “pop unders” that arose during the early part of the 2000’s. “Content-blocking” as Apple refers to it in iOS 9 is but a recent, high-profile example of this trend.

Today there are active advertising blocking technologies at multiple different points in the interactive data/Internet stream:

Where ads are being blocked today (Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved)

Starting with the most common “red X” in the diagram, on the client side closes to the consumer:

  1. Web browser or browser plug-in: Tools like Adblock and Adblock+ provide popular browser plugins that use tens of thousands of crowdsourced rules to prevent ad domains or CSS from rendering in browsers.
  2. Mobile browser: Some browsers build adblocking or “private browsing” directly into their functionality.
  3. Content-blocking applications: On iOS 9 mobile Safari, you can enable one or more “content blocker” to prevent certain content from rendering in the browser. Already there are dozens of these applications in the Apple AppStore.
  4. ISP- or business-network-level filters: Many companies or military organizations prevent their employees.
  5. Home network device / DNS / router filters: AdTrap had a successful Kickstarter campaign for its $149 device that blocks ad traffic at the network level, and there is a Raspberry Pi project called Pi-Hole that (for less than $50) can act as a DNS server for your home network and block ads. People are using open source firmware for their older routers like Tomato, and adding ad blocking filters to it.
  6. Carrier-level blocking: While it appears that Net Neutrality may be a concern especially in the US preventing this, a company called Shine is assisting Caribbean phone carrier Digicel in applying carrier-level ad blocking

Consumers at first worried about spam, but now we barely do as it is built into most of our email programs and software. Similarly we are at the beginning of “attention filtering”: we have started to question how and what we allow to show up on our personal devices, and advertisers, data companies and publishers alike are on notice:

The filter wars are just beginning