How content blockers are the Jericho missiles of the web

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"Find an excuse to let one of these off the chain, and I personally guarantee you the bad guys won't even want to come out of their caves. For your consideration, the Jericho."

-- Tony Stark

Last week Apple became the Stark Industries of web advertising. At the beginning of the Iron Man movie, Tony Stark bombastically demonstrates the Jericho missile, an advanced weapon that uses Stark's proprietary repulsor technology. The missile is supposed to be the ultimate checkmate in an escalating arms race.

Apple's new content-blocking technology does the same thing for web ads. The content-blocking capacity now in iOS 9 allows users to block ads, trackers and other pieces of code at an operating system level. All users have to do is run content-blocking software like Crystal and mobile Safari suddenly runs faster and almost ad-free.

Apple's move is terrifying to publishers and advertisers for four reasons. First, web browsing has gone mobile, so having a content-blocking solution on mobile devices is dangerous. Second, mobile Safari makes up a huge amount of web-browsing traffic. And, third, owners of Apple devices tend to be the kind of demographic advertisers yearn for. And, finally, last week one of the most popular categories of software downloads on the app store was, you guessed it, content-blockers.

The reason the ability to block ads is so appealing is obvious to anyone who has tried to browse news sites in the past year or so. Online ads have become as obnoxious as a drunk insurance salesman, trying to find new ways of getting in your face -- they now feature pop-ups, autoplays and full-screen-hogging junk that bring along with their graphic crud all manner of tracking software and, now and then, some malware as an added bonus.

The truth is, loading or clicking on an online ad these days is inviting yourself to a frat party where someone is spiking the drinks with roofies. And, of course, all that excess code means pages not only look worse, they load many times slower than web pages without malware-ridden cornea gumbo.

Publishers are, of course, crying foul and claiming that Apple is just driving them towards Apple's newly released News app, where ads aren't blocked.

I'm not buying that. Newspapers, tech sites and other big content providers online have been so desperate to win the arms race of decreasing revenue, increasing inventory, dropping interest and ad blocking that they have allowed federated advertising agencies to foist increasingly annoying ads on a public which has finally decided that its collective attention is worth more than the bother of dealing with in-your-face page graffiti, privacy invasion and possible malware attacks.

Judging from the popularity of the now-available content-blocking tools, it seems a lot of folks are with me on this.

The downside, of course, is that publishers may decide their best option is to dump the open web and scramble to news apps. Which, last week, is exactly what TorStar did.

They launched Star Touch. But, ironically, to continue the Iron Man analogy, it's like the lumbering, ugly metal giant Tony Stark's former friend turned archenemy Obadiah Stane, tried to pit against Stark himself.

The bloated app is peppered with content-loading notification and is riddled with full-screen intrusive ads that make it almost impossible to read the stories. Nice try, Obadiah.

Other sites, like the popular The Verge, appear to be coping by hosting their own ads, which ad blockers, which look for syndicated ad fingerprints, let pass.

In the end, I think system-level ad blockers will be a wake-up call for online publishers.

The fallout will mean publishers will have to adapt or fade away. I'm running a blocker myself and will find other ways of supporting sites I value. I suspect a lot of other folks are doing the same. The Jericho missile genie is out of the bottle. And we know, in the end, how that went for the Ten Rings terrorists.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: marvelousRoland/flickr

Like our coverage of technology? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

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