ad-blockers, apple, ios9, data, advertising

Why ad-blockers really aren’t the data privacy win you might think

Ad-blockers shot straight to the top of the paid-for apps list in the App Store when Apple’s iOS9 update that allowed users to block mobile advertising was released.

So far, so not unusual – ads are pesky little things, right? Popping-up unexpectedly when you least expect them and generally bloating pages, crucifying page load times and eating up data allowances. Not to mention their tracking qualities as well as the past searches and purchases that stalk you round the web, site after site, day after day. Nope, no redeeming features at all – let’s block them all.

Then something unexpected happened – Marco Arment, creator of the no1 paid ad-blocker Peace, pulled it from the store after just two days, saying that “success didn’t feel good”.

What exactly the problem is remains unclear, altrhough comments on the Instapaper’s founder’s blog where he talked of needing to find a “more nuanced, complex approach” offer some clues.

He added: “Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”

What Arment seems to be alluding to is what Seth Godin termed the shared understanding that websites offer free content in return for attention. For most sites, advertising is what quite literally pays the content creation bills.

Of course, pages have become increasingly riddled with evermore intrusive ads over the past few years, and it’s hard not to see that the reader has been assailed from all sides. So the appearance of ad-blockers was only going to end one way. Or, as Godin put it: “In the face of a relentless race to the bottom, users are taking control, using a sledgehammer to block them all.”

But still the fact remains that readers and sites have been in a mutually-beneficial relationship where advertising has played a key role in funding content for which there is demand but no serious suggestion that users would pay the full creation cost. And that remains the case even as ad-blocking apps proliferate.

So if ad blocking is not the answer, what is? There is clearly change needed on both sides – advertisers needs to show self-restraint and not machine gun content over every page we open, while users need to understand that on the internet, as with so many things, we can’t simply have the good for free without giving something back.

But there also needs to be a fundamental shift in how we think about data. We don’t like these ads that follow us around, or trackers, because they feel like an assault on our privacy. Yet it is the information gained through this that allows businesses to begin to better target our wants and interests.

I say begin, as the data available to date is so thin and incomplete that it is estimated to be up to 30-50 per cent wrong, to the obvious detriment of both the business and user.

Imagine how much more beneficial for both sides a rich data set would be – useful data 100 per cent certified and licensed at source, used to target appealing ads back to that same user.

A vision for the future to be sure, but a vision that comes ever closer as the Internet of Me follows close on the heels of the Internet of Things, with companies like digi.me at the forefront of this digital revolution.

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