dotunderscore by Brian Hough

Thoughts on iOS 9 Content Blockers

When I shared my iOS 9 Notes & Impressions earlier this summer, I barely touched on the platform’s built in support for a new type of extension called “Content Blockers.” That now appears to have been an oversight on my part. Since iOS 9 launched yesterday, Content Blockers have created a firestorm unlike anything I’ve seen in quite some time.

Reactions have been, in hindsight, understandably split. Depending on who you ask, Content Blockers are either the biggest improvement to Mobile Safari since its inception, or a harmful feature implemented by a vindictive Apple, bent on hurting both Google and the established publishing industry in a vein attempt to redirect quality content away from the open web and towards the new Apple News application.

But what are Content Blockers? To get a full understanding of how these new apps work, one needs to understand that the “open” web is spying on you. Perhaps you’ve spent half an hour browsing the web for new shoes, only to find advertisements for footwear following you all around the internet for a week. These aren’t just obnoxious advertisements, they are also bombarding your devices with scripts designed to track exactly what you watch, read, share, and purchase on the web.

There’s no escape: these scripts are bundled with advertising space sold and served by the biggest ad provider on the web, Google. If you click a link and find the page littered with advertisements, there’s a good chance that those advertisements come from Google. There’s an even better chance that those advertisements there are gathering information on your browsing habits to help someone determine how to better inundate you with more, and more effective, adverts.

Not only is this incredibly creepy and a borderline invasion of your privacy, it’s also damaging in a few other ways. Privacy concerns aside, these adverts do hell to your device’s battery. I’m sure every iPhone owner on the planet would like to eek even an hour’s worth of battery out of their phone. What if I told you that, if all of these scripts and ads were to suddenly disappear, Safari would use much less power, and your iPhone’s battery would last significantly longer?

The good news is, that’s exactly what a Content Blocker on iOS 9 is designed to accomplish: a good one will filter the internet of advertisements and sites’ abilities to track your browsing habits, giving you the benefit of a faster, safer, and more secure experience on a device that lasts longer. Content Blockers work on both Mobile Safari (most iPhone users’ browser of choice) as well as any application that supports Safari View Controller, a growing list that already includes one of the largest Twitter clients in use, Twitterrific.

So what’s the issue? Well, if you don’t see a downside, you might not be a publisher. There’s a reason that so many websites rely on advertising, and why so much of that advertising pushes these sorts of tracking technology - your browsing habits are valuable. So valuable, in fact, that modern day mega publishing corporations such as Buzzfeed and Vox rely heavily on these advertisements: they make bank off you. I’m sure most of these big publishing guys are like the rest of us – their hearts don’t beat a flutter when they see a full screen advertisement obstructing content, but they realize that it’s a “necessary” evil and someone’s primary source of income. It enables publishers to deliver quality content to readers that are ravenous for hot takes, personality quizzes, and gossip for the low, low price of zero dollars.

The issue at hand is evident. If all iOS users upgrade to iOS 9 and download a Content Blocker, all of those hundreds of thousands of people will suddenly become of next to no value to advertisers, which will in turn stop generating revenue and then profits for publishers, which could put all your favorite authors at Buzzfeed or wherever else quickly out of a job. This will be especially hurtful for the little guys who don’t have big corporate backers acting as a safety net: the folks at quality niche sites like Six Colors or MacStories.

Apple isn’t being forthcoming as to why they implemented Content Blockers on iOS after nine very successful years without them, and I don’t expect them to ever be. Perhaps that reason is as innocent as wanting to offer a better user experience for Mobile Safari users. Perhaps it’s to push publishers towards Apple News, where adverts are provided by Apple and unblockable. It hardly matters. No matter how you feel about them, Content Blockers are here, and they’re almost certainly staying. From this point forward, more and more people will begin blocking significant portions of the web, and advertisers and publishers will begin to feel the squeeze.

There are a couple of ways this could shake out. The most likely outcome, I think, will be that very little changes. Truthfully, Content Blockers are nothing new – they have existed on desktop platforms, such as Windows, Linux, and the Mac, for years. Given Android’s open nature, I’m sure it’s had the equivalent of Content Blockers since the early days of Android on the HTC G1.

iOS has been the exception to the rule until now, and publishers have survived just fine. Content Blockers have always been, and will very likely always be, a niche product for a few tech savvy folks who know they can shape their web browsing experience to their personal preference while also having enough wherewithal to know how to go out and do it. I believe this is exactly what will happen on iOS 9. It’s not like an Apple sanctioned Content Blocker exists or comes installed on iOS 9 from the get go, nor can I imagine they’ll be pushed by the App Store team all that much: they will exist for the select few who know they want them, and they will be ignored by the majority of users.

But if they were to take off, and if suddenly everyone and their grandfather begins deploying Content Blockers, it’s all too clear what could and maybe should happen: publishers profits will begin to fall. Just as in nature when an environment changes, the strong will adapt and the weak will die. Some will argue that this will be the end of free, high quality content, and maybe they’re right.

But then again, if you have to trade your privacy, your device’s battery life, and a good user experience to access that content, is it really free?

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