Support net neutrality and ad-blocking? You’re a hypocrite

The mobile web could soon be looking an awful lot emptier if reports of plans by two major networks are to be believed. On Monday, The Telegraph broke the story that the EE network was reviewing whether to enable ad-blocking across the whole phone network, and yesterday Business Insider broke the story that O2 is saying “me too”, and has even claimed to be in advanced stages of planning to introduce the technology.

Support net neutrality and ad-blocking? You’re a hypocrite

“If ad-blocking becomes the new normal, it could have terrible unintended consequences.”

Although it will no doubt sound appealing to customers, if ad-blocking becomes the new normal for EE, O2 and, inevitably, every other network on Earth, it could have profound and terrible unintended consequences.

Ad-blocking apps and browser plugins have been available for a number of years on both desktop and mobile. Most recently, the update to iOS 9 on iPhone and iPad enabled ad-blocking apps for the first time. But what is being proposed here is that, rather than having adverts screened out by an app on an individual’s phone, adverts would instead be cut out of web pages by the network before the data has downloaded to the user’s phone.

Everybody hurts

This is no doubt a terrifying proposition for any online entities with a business model that entails publishing content online and surrounding it by advertising. Like, umm, Alphr, for a start. As publications go digital, and our digital consumption goes increasingly mobile, this is terrible news if you want a sustainable business.

Even the largest digital players should be worried. Google controls a gigantic slice of the online advertising market. The reason it provides so many of its services (including the bandwidth-intensive YouTube) for free is because it can deliver eyeballs to adverts. If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to see how Google responds to any ad-blocking – could it retaliate by de-ranking EE or O2 from its search listings?



Essentially, the problem is about who gets to be the gatekeeper to online content.

So far, both O2 and EE have said that their implementations of the technology will be to encourage “best practice”, with the implication that some adverts will be let through while other, more annoying, adverts won’t. But I’m not sure why we should grant phone networks the privilege of deciding what we get to see.

“Why should we grant phone networks the privilege of deciding what we get to see?”

Everyone knows that picking between a phone network is like choosing an estate agent or booking a flight: there’s no way of winning and, as a consumer, you’re going to get screwed whoever you pick.

The reason for this is because it’s a relatively cosy oligopoly. To become a fully fledged phone network (not a virtual operator), there are high barriers to entry: you need to license spectrum from the government, and buy and maintain a network of transmitters. This makes it incredibly difficult for a new company to join in and provide a better service at a competitive price. Moreover, the barriers will increase even further in the not-too-distant future, with further consolidation creating even more powerful companies as EE is gobbled up by BT, and O2 consumed by Hutchison Whampoa, which owns Three.

Contrast this to, say, apps or publishing where there is much more of a free market – where apps and blogs can rise and fall more quickly, and where delivering a good service to the consumer is vital to survival. So it strikes me as weird that we might want to concentrate more power into the hands of companies that are not subjected to such intense pressures.

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