"Oh, shut UP." The mute button on my computer keyboard sees a lot more action than it used to. As I sit here working, I'll find myself whacking it indignantly to silence disembodied voices promoting products from web pages I'm not even looking at. These voices fail to sell me anything, but hey, that's intrusive advertising for you. Pop-ups, pop-unders, interstitials (pages that appear before the one you're trying to get to), video and audio ads that run without permission – they all combine to form an online irritant that continually tests the boundaries of our patience.
"But without the advertisements, you'd have no worthwhile content," runs the argument, and in a chaotic online economy with wafer thin margins, it's a fair point. "But... must it really be like this?" we wail, as the entire article we're trying to read slides off the edge of the page and is replaced with a promotion for cheap flights to the Algarve.
Millions of people every year turn to ad-blocking software to minimise this annoyance. To make up for lost numbers, adverts become more intrusive, and so more people block the ads. 144 million people now use some kind of blocking software, making the companies behind them rather powerful. Eyeo, the maker of AdBlock Plus, had the fantastic wheeze a couple of years ago of charging businesses to let advertisements through its filter. This "Acceptable Ads" programme was criticised for being coercive, but a new development in the European mobile industry makes that look like a minor case of playground bullying.
The Financial Times has revealed that one unnamed European mobile network has installed ad-blocking software and plans to turn it on for all subscribers later this year. The software, developed by an Israeli startup called Shine (and backed by 3's owners Hutchison Whampoa) will block the majority of ads from your mobile phone without you even having to think. Other mobile networks are rumoured to be following suit.
Anyone who feels overwhelmed by adverts would salute this noble gesture, but the motivation here is money. Mobile networks deeply resent providing the bandwidth and infrastructure to advertisers who foist data-heavy adverts on their hapless customers, and they want some recompense for their trouble. But the advertisers don't want to be held to ransom, and one hell of fight is imminent at code level, with blockers being developed to block the ad blockers. There's a great deal at stake in this battle, not least the viability of countless online businesses that depend on some form of advertising income to keep going.
"No business has a god-given right to exist," says Roi Carthy, the Chief Marketing Officer of Shine, likening online advertising to the act of chemicals being poured in rivers or smog polluting the air. But the arguments about the morality of these adverts are rich with metaphor on both sides. The websites that serve up intrusive adverts are characterised as thieves, but so are the people who, by installing ad blockers, undermine the business model by which web pages are delivered to them in the first place.
It's possible that wider issues relating to net neutrality might scupper the mobile networks' plans; after all, they're legally obliged to treat all data equally, regardless of whether it's an ad or a cat picture. Is it possible to claim the moral high ground for blocking intrusive ads when you're monitoring your own customers' traffic for intrusive ads? We shall see.
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