I’ve been using an ad blocker browser extension since I switched from Internet Explorer to Firefox who knows how long ago. At some point between then and now I moved to Chrome as my primary web browser, and when making that change I once again installed an ad blocker. In both instances I’ve gone with Adblock Plus, which seems to be the biggest fish in that pond. It does a fantastic job of cleaning up my desktop web browsing experience. It can even go further than mere ad blocking, allowing you to block annoying parts of websites that aren’t ads such as the Twitter “who to follow” section (my tutorial on how to set that up can be found here).
While content blocker extensions have been available on desktop browsers for years, the built-in Safari browser on iOS devices hasn’t offered support for anything like them. Version 9 of Apple’s mobile operating system changes that, and many apps have popped up in the App Store to take advantage of this new ability. I’ve been using the app Crystal to get the job done on my iPhone, mostly because it was a mere $0.99. I really don’t know if it’s the best out there, but it’s done just fine so far.
There’s always been a contentious debate surrounding content blockers. Most of those who are against them are web publishers who rely on ad revenue to pay the bills. It’s the small independent publishers who feel the pain of these blockers most. The contending position is that online ads are a pain, they’re obtrusive, and all too often they’re of no interest to the person browsing. Worse, they’re collecting information about you as you’re browsing through scripts installed on those sites.
One of the more interesting microcosms of this debate occurred over the past two weeks. Marco Arment, creator of apps like Instapaper and Overcast, released a content blocking app called Peace. He billed it as “privacy-focused,” that the motivation behind the app was to prevent online ad scripts from collecting personal browsing information that, in his opinion and mine, they have no business owning. The backbone of the app is a service called Ghostery (something I’ve tried in its browser extension form). That extension provides you with an eye-opening look at just how many people are trying to access information on you when you’re on any given website. You then have the ability to allow or block any of these online plugins.
The biggest difference between the Ghostery desktop browser extension and Peace for iOS is that the latter is always on, whereas the desktop version can be easily toggled and adjusted while a user is browsing. That’s an important distinction, one that shaped this story.
The other wrinkle here is that Mr. Arment places ads on his own website through a service called The Deck, yet he chose not to whitelist them in Peace. Whitelisting an individual ad service across all websites was a feature cut from version 1.0 due to time constraints (wanting to release Peace when iOS 9 first became available) and it was planned for the future. Not having this available from day one, however, must have created some tension.
I think the debate over ad blockers became as noisy as it did these past couple of weeks because on desktop browsers it’s not quite as obvious how to install them. My impression when it comes to browser extensions is that they’re still not sought out and used by the average user. With these new iOS 9 apps their visibility and ease of use had never been higher, making them an obvious impulse buy to anyone casually browsing the App Store. In fact, Peace hit #1 on the paid app charts.
Two days after its release, in spite of its massive popularity, Mr. Ament did an about-face, pulling the app from the App Store. His post announcing the change has a great summation statement:
I still believe that ad blockers are necessary today, and I still think Ghostery is the best one, but I’ve learned over the last few crazy days that I don’t feel good making one and being the arbiter of what’s blocked.
That’s an interesting distinction. The distance between taking a stance (ad blockers are necessary) and taking action on a stance (creating and distributing an ad blocker) proved to be too far. I can’t blame him. Putting himself into the crossfire of such a fiery debate would be more than I’d want to sign up for.
(As a brief aside, the story has a happy ending for the early adopters: Apple has agreed to issue a refund to all those who purchased Peace.)
Watching this drama unfold I’ve been asking myself if my stance on blocking online advertising through the use of a content blocker has changed at all, and I don’t think it has. I justify using them in two ways. First, I try to support content creators in other ways, such as buying a product they’ve released (e.g. the Focus Course by Shawn Blanc, the book Platform by Michael Hyatt, the apps Instapaper and Overcast by Mr. Arment). Of course I can’t do this for everyone whose content I consume, so you could argue that my level of support to creators is far outweighed by my actions to hide their means of putting their creations in front of me. Second, I really do worry about the kinds of information being collected about my browsing activity. I’d like to minimize that passing of information as much as I’m able.
In the end I think it remains a matter of conscience. Mr. Arment, by his own testimony, couldn’t sleep at night with Peace available on the App Store. Yet by every indication he still makes use of content blockers himself. It’s not a black-and-white issue. For now, I prefer a quieter, more private browsing experience, and content blockers are my ticket to that experience.