How the Ad Block Debate Impacts Net Neutrality

October 6, 2016
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The ongoing debate surrounding ad blocking might never die. Its impact can be felt by the billions of internet users, all of which have been hit by unwanted ads at least once. But at the same time, millions of other companies have their ads unseen. As end users, we may think of ad blockers as sources of power, a tool to use in order to gain some control in our browsing experience. However, we also favor net neutrality because we want everyone, including ourselves, to be visible.

The ongoing debate surrounding ad blocking might never die. Its impact can be felt by the billions of internet users, all of which have been hit by unwanted ads at least once. But at the same time, millions of other companies have their ads unseen. As end users, we may think of ad blockers as sources of power, a tool to use in order to gain some control in our browsing experience. However, we also favor net neutrality because we want everyone, including ourselves, to be visible. Big brands, new companies, even inappropriate content, we want it all to be exposed because otherwise we might be left behind.

Net neutrality is the online version of “freedom of speech,” as it implies an equal opportunity for everyone to display their content. That means that providers should not apply preferential treatment to major companies who are willing to pay for faster loading time and throttle smaller businesses who cannot afford it. If that were so, we would see firms with deep pockets getting all the attention, with speedier websites and infinitely more frequent ads. From small businesses and startups to the lone entrepreneur, they would be left in the dark, lost on the internet with no customers to reach their services. Consumers wouldn’t even be able to find them.

The ad block debate has been sparked between companies that base their revenue on ads and software creators that actually block them. It’s a constant battle, and it’s difficult to say which favors the user, which favors net neutrality, or if they just favor neither. However, internet service providers (ISPs) have had their say by implementing their own methods of blocking ads by default for their users. The question now stands how this fierce ad block debate impacts net neutrality and all that it stands for.

A Faster Experience Without Net Neutrality

First, we must consider if ad blockers are a breach of net neutrality. It’s a vicious ethical debate that might go beyond internet forums and slip into courts. Ads are part of the online content that companies put out there to promote their business. So, is paying to make your ads visible equal to paying for your content to be out there? That implies that companies with significant funds would be able to show them to the public, while smaller businesses without a major capital will not.

For users and internet service providers, ad blockers have a major advantage. According to research done by the New York Times, it takes longer to load ads than the actual content. In fact, the Huffington Post page loaded in 5.2 seconds with ads, and in 1.2 seconds without them. Not to mention the fact that other pages consumed 19.4 MB to load, out of which a whopping 15.4 MB were ads. For consumers, it’s wasted data that costs money. For ISPs, it’s wasted network capacity. This serves as a remarkable incentive for the latter to implement ad blocking as a default in their services. It means customers themselves would have to turn off the ad blocker if they wished.

However, for most, such a default setting to be “on” might just mean “on forever”.

Advertisers Could Be Forced to Pay

Under the Open Internet Order adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that enforces net neutrality, ad blocking raises some regularity questions. ISPs explicitly cannot block lawful content, which includes ads, or make deals to favor some businesses over others. For example, giving websites such as Facebook a higher loading speed while letting others load slower just because Facebook is willing to give them money for it. While something such as this would not fly under U.S. regulations, it’s already happening in other places around the globe. Shine, a startup company from Israel who created software that prevents ads has already made deals with several ISPs.

Its three partnerships include European Three Group (30 million subscribers), Caribbean-based Digicel (13 million subscribers), and South Africa’s Econet Wireless (40 million subscribers). By using their software, these ISPs will block ads from reaching their users by default. Roi Carthy, Shine’s chief marketing officer and the most hated man in publishing, expressed his wish to fight against the “consumer abuse” that is online advertising. Their software cuts cell data and improves network capacity. However, one detail should not be forgotten. Ad blockers don’t make the big bucks by blocking. They make it by allowing some advertisers slip through their strict channels.

That implies that ISPs want a chunk of the profits websites make off their ads. Denis O’Brien, the owner of Digicel, stated that he wants to force companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Facebook to pay his company if they want their ads to be seen by their subscribers. While this is strictly against net neutrality in the U.S., such methods are only “frowned upon” in other regions, and might soon start spreading. That would threaten the concept of net neutrality worldwide.

A Dangerous Precedent

How ad blocking impacts net neutrality is that it might set a precedent. If providers are allowed to block any sort of content, in this case, ads, then they might begin blocking others. That includes torrents websites, hate speech, blasphemy, graphic content, or anything else that they deem unsuitable. It’s one step forward to the death of free speech and the ability of Internet users to choose what they want to see themselves. While the end-user indulges in the benefits of ad blocking, it could be a breach of the net neutrality most of us want and have unintended effects.

A good example would be AdBlock Plus. It’s possibly the biggest player in the business, but has also created a white list of “Acceptable Ads Program.” It includes advertisers who have either paid to be on that list or earned it through clean and efficient ads. Perhaps it’s a push for advertisers to become more creative, but it could also show preferential treatment based on financial incentive. The company has come under fire because of its lack of transparency on the matter. If businesses are allowed to do so, then perhaps a precedent will be set that will allow other providers and companies to control what content is shown and what is not. Thus, threatening net neutrality.

The Loop Holes Could Get Bigger and Bigger

Even in the U.S. where the Open Internet Order reigns, there are loopholes that companies take advantage of. For example, various ISPs set a limit of how much data you can use, depending on your plan. Once you surpass it, your speed gets throttled, or you need to pay extra. However, the ISPs also have a set of apps or websites that ignore those limits, a practice named “zero rating.” It’s effectively a way to show preferential treatment to what subscribers can watch better, faster, and cheaper. It’s a major problem for net neutrality, as these little loopholes are not explicitly banned by the order. That means they can be further exploited in the future.

Randall Rothenberg, the president of Interactive Advertising Bureau, described ad blocking companies as “an old-fashioned extortion racket, gussied up in the flowery but false language of contemporary consumerism.” However, it’s for us to ponder the issue. Is ad-blocking a saving feature created with consumers in mind or is it an extortion tool that aims to earn money from companies that live off ads? Are they a hero of the end-user or the forceful middle-man?

It depends on the viewer. Perhaps this a call for action to remove all the flashy ads and misleading click-baits that drain our data and slow our experience. Or perhaps it’s merely a power move on the side of operators and providers, shouting loudly to companies like Google and Facebook that “you do not get to rule the internet.” It’s a slippery slope, as blocking ads could benefit users in the beginning, but it might endanger net neutrality, as it’s possible it will not stop there. And us, the end users, might not get a choice anymore in what gets blocked by our ISP and what we are allowed to see.