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

Just as in the Middle Ages, when there were literal gatekeepers who sat at customs posts on the outskirts of cities and extracted duties from anyone wishing to enter, allowing the networks to be in charge of which adverts are seen is effectively a tax on other stakeholders. The implication by talking of “best practice” is that the networks will setup a “whitelist” of approved adverts. It’s easy to imagine a hypothetical phone network that blocked ads offering to whitelist certain companies in exchange for a fee.

“It’s far better for us if the phone networks are treated more like utilities.”

It’s within the interests of these fat, lazy networks to position themselves as “content” companies that can discriminate with pricing like this, as there’s more money in it. Ultimately, though, it’s far better for the consumer if the phone networks are treated more like utilities.

Imagine if electricity companies could discriminate on pricing based not on overall power consumption as measured in kilowatt hours, but instead on what appliance you were using. That would be a very strange situation to be in.

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Net neutrality

If this argument sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because, in essence, it’s the same as the ongoing net neutrality debate. Net neutrality is the not dissimilar argument that internet service providers shouldn’t be able to discriminate on types of content. For example, imagine if an ISP used deliberate blocks to force Netflix to stream at lower bandwidth than Amazon Instant Video.

If we were debating net neutrality in these terms, most people would agree that it’s important to protect neutrality for the good of competition and freedom. If this neutrality was threatened, we would happily line up behind John Oliver and fight to the death to defend our digital Helm’s Deep.

“If you agree that net neutrality is desirable and go on to defend blocking adverts, you’re a hypocrite.”

So why should advertising be any different? Leaving aside the fact that separating out the difference between “advertising” and “editorial” (or other content) is increasingly difficult in the modern world, if you agree that net neutrality is desirable and go on to defend blocking adverts, you’re a hypocrite.

And yes, I know that advertising is often unpleasant. But just as having “free speech” in society means having to accept that racists or other deeply unpleasant people are allowed to speak, if we truly want to have net neutrality, we should be prepared to accept obnoxious adverts.

Unintended consequences

Given the teased plans of O2 and EE, it seems all but inevitable that ad-blocking will be standard in the not-too-distant future. But, like many seemingly beneficial moves, there can be profound unintended consequences.

Other than a rebalancing of the power relationship between different actors in the mobile industry, perhaps the scariest outcome from my own solipsism could be the further muzzling of the press. If adverts aren’t there to fund publications, then how can we expect the press to effectively hold the largest corporations to account? (Or indeed, write hot takes on the mobile industry.)

Arguably, it’s within the interests of the mobile networks to choke the press as much as possible: these are huge players with huge influence over our lives. And if the traditional role of the so-called Fourth Estate isn’t being fulfilled, who will keep these companies honest?

The mobile networks are already huge mega-corporations that have accrued a critical place at the centre of our digital lives – is it really wise to hand them even more power?

Technology companies are vying for control of the web, but what if we gave them control of our love lives? This is not a dystopian dream. Click here to read about Facebook’s plans to let you end a relationship with a click of a button. 

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