Future Tense

Mobile Carriers Shouldn’t Get Into the Ad-Blocking Business

Ad blockers are great—in consumers hands.


I’m a big believer in blocking online ads and trackers. Needless to say, advertisers and media companies aren’t. Some try to make me feel guilty. Others block me or degrade the Web experience. Fair enough.

But if your telecommunications company decides or offers to do block ads on your behalf, beware.

That’s where we may be heading if a U.K.–based mobile operator, Three, pulls off an “experiment” it’s conducting next week. For customers who opt in to the program, Three will attempt to block all advertising for a day.

Three, one of the companies in Hong Kong mega-billionaire Li Ka-Shing’s sprawling empire, is touting this as a customer-friendly initiative, and in one respect there’s truth in that. The surge of ad and tracking blockers is testament to the way the advertising industry and its media partners have polluted our nternet access with unwanted ads and, worse, grossly invasive tracking systems that, at best, border on spyware. On mobile, where carriers have grossly restrictive data caps, the problem is even worse.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that Three’s move—and others like it sure to come from other telecom operators, mobile and fixed-line—is also about money. At a basic level this is a land grab by an industry that controls an essential choke point in our communications, namely access to the internet. And choke points are perfect places to put up tollbooths.

If this notion takes hold, it won’t get rid of ads on mobile, anyway (unless you keep using an effective blocker on your device). It will change the calculus of who pays, and how. As the U.K.–based advertising and marketing trade journal Campaign observes: “At its simplest, this technology can be used to make advertising networks pay a share of their revenue to un-block their ads. … The spin will be ‘if you want to use our customers’ valuable bandwidth for ads, you can pay for the bandwidth.’ ”

You can be almost certain that if one carrier gets away with this (an industry analyst says about one in 10 people surveyed in six countries would switch to a carrier that blocked ads), others will follow. Why wouldn’t they? Around the world, telecommunications companies have made it clear that they want to control not just the connections but the data as well.

In the United States we have rules against this, under the umbrella of network neutrality, which says that carriers can’t discriminate against particular kinds of content. So it’s likely that the Federal Communications Commission would not permit, say, Verizon or AT&T to make this kind of move. But that’s the FCC under its current leadership. If the Republicans take control of the White House and hold Congress this fall, they are almost certain to torpedo net neutrality. And even if they don’t, the consistently horrible behavior of the surveillance capitalists in the ad business might encourage bad decisions by the Democrats.

As initiatives like this proceed, carriers will bring out more creative arguments. I expect them to say that blocking ads is no different than blocking spam—and everyone wants spam blocked, right? But there are several differences, actually: We have a choice of email services, most of which are not provided by telecom companies, and in many cases we can adjust spam-blocking settings depending on our own wishes in those services. And can you imagine a telecom offering to whitelist spam for a fee?

Again, I’m not even slightly opposed to ad/tracker blocking. I use blockers on my laptop and on my mobile phone. For mobile browsing on Android I recommend Firefox plus blocking extensions for this purpose. (I also gladly pay for consistently compelling journalism.) But I want us to block the ads and trackers at the device level, not the carrier level. We can save bandwidth, and retain privacy, without handing vast new power to the carriers.

Carrier-based ad/tracker blocking is a Trojan horse. Don’t let it past the gate.