Who to believe on ‘ad-blockers’?

If you thought that the last words had already been said on the thorny issue of content blocking, then you should read MacWorld UK’s latest salvo.

Thinly disguised as an attempt to explain how to use “ad-blockers in iOS 9 (and why you shouldn’t)”, it might have been more cogently placed on a page with few and subtle advertisements. Your experience may differ, but when I tried to view it, the headline and lead-in were almost swamped by ads. I counted a total of 18 third-party ads, one of which was an intrusive video with sound, as well as innumerable internal and ‘you might also enjoy’ promotions.

macworldukadblockLooking at the technical content of the article, I was disappointed that it failed to make the important distinction between Safari extensions, and Safari content blockers. At first I thought that it was only referring to the latter:
“One of the more surprising features of iOS 9 was Apple’s inclusion of content blocking extensions for Safari.”

However it later states:
“Content Blockers do, by their nature, monitor your web traffic and interfere with your web browsing (that’s the point.)”

Anyone who has read my series of articles here about writing content blockers (rather than full-blown extensions) for Safari 9 will know that a Safari 9 content blocker consists of a set of JSON rules. They do not monitor your web traffic, but simply instruct the browser (actually WebKit, which inevitably handles your web traffic) what to display and how to behave.

On the other hand, a Safari extension which performs content blocking works differently, and could perhaps be construed as ‘monitoring web traffic’, although I think that is overstatement.

I was also surprised to read:
“We think Crystal is the easiest software to use as the blocklist is managed for you.”
as Safari content blockers have to manage the blocklist for you, because that list is static, and fixed by the developer – again, a fact which is only too clear in my articles here.

After this brief introduction, the article gets to its real message:
“Before you run along and install one of these extensions, there are a few reasons why we think you shouldn’t.”

Ah. So this is what MacWorld UK, bristling with ads, wants us to take home: an editorial admonishment rather than a how-to.

We are offered a moral message:
“Is it right to use Ad Blocking software?
We’re don’t want to have to preach from the pulpit when it comes ad blocking, but essentially it could kill journalism as we know it.”

It already looks as if it may have killed sub-editors, judging from the error in the text. Then comes the serious threat:
“If Ad Blockers are successful in eradicating the quality content currently given away for free, based on the ad views, then all we will be left with is the less professional content.”
Presumably those without editors either?

Then, having scared us that these sinister content blockers are secretly ‘monitoring web traffic’, the warnings play on fear of losing control:
“It sounds like rather than getting control of content, we are just handing control to the Ad Block companies.”
Good. We need someone new to put in the pillory and throw invective at, and as we probably don’t know who the villains in “Ad Block companies” are, why not them, as well as Apple, of course.

Then right at the end, after a sudden admission that maybe content blockers won’t put every journalist out of work, we are accused of criminal behaviour:
“How this will play out in the long run is anybody’s guess. For the short term, at least, users are getting to enjoy the internet without ads… and essentially committing theft.”

Up to that point, I was merely very sad that ‘professional’ online content had been reduced to thinly veiled propaganda, a how-to that might have been ghost-written by the publisher’s finance director. But I was always told that a journalist should never insult their readers, either by accusing them of criminal actions, or by insulting their intelligence.

You now realise why they are called content blockers, and not ad blockers: sometimes the content is as inappropriate and irritating as the ads.