The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How our love affair with ad-blocking risks giving Internet providers even more power

(Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg)

Apple recently began allowing customers to download and install ad-blocking apps on their iPhones, sparking a big debate about the future of the Internet and the ethics of blocking online advertisements. Although ads support everything from social networks to search engines and newspapers, they can also be annoying, intrusive and a drain on your device.

Despite the controversy, expect to see the ad blocking business grow. Someday soon, huge companies could begin offering ad-blocking features — perhaps including your Internet provider.

This is already happening in some parts of the world. The Caribbean-based wireless network Digicel said Wednesday that it would be blocking all ads from reaching consumers by default. In the same report, the Wall Street Journal said T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom may be considering a similar move in Europe.

It's still unclear whether U.S. providers have any plans to start blocking ads, and spokespeople for the major wireless carriers didn't respond to requests for comment.

[Why the maker of a chart-topping ad blocker just pulled it off the App Store]

For consumers, the case for using an ad-blocker seems evident. Web pages load faster, you use less of your mobile data and you save money as a result. The New York Times took a look at this Thursday. It found that for many online news sites, it takes longer to load the ads than the news content visitors are presumably there to see. On an LTE connection, the Huffington Post loaded in 5.2 seconds with all its ads, for example, but with an ad blocker, that time was cut to just 1.2 seconds.

Though an average Internet user might consider using an ad-blocker after seeing these results, the study offers even more compelling evidence to Internet providers that they should start blocking ads at the network level. Here's why. It takes 19.4 megabytes of data to load the homepage once, according to the Times. Of that, advertising accounts for a whopping 15.4 MB.

To the consumer, this is wasted data. To the wireless carrier, it's a waste of network capacity. That's a piece of the pipe it would otherwise devote to a new customer, or to improving Internet speeds for everyone else. Advertisements contribute to network congestion, and nobody likes that.

So, filtering out ads offers Internet providers two main benefits: They look good in front of their customers. And they ease the demand on their own infrastructure.

[How much is your privacy worth? $350 a year, according to AT&T]

A third benefit is that they gain a bit of leverage with advertisers. AT&T, for example, already presents itself to advertisers as something of an ally. It operates a program in some cities where it gives broadband subscribers a discount if the subscriber agrees to let AT&T use his or her data for ad targeting. Obviously, implementing a network-wide policy of ad-blocking would hurt this program. But what if a carrier's approach to ad-blocking were more nuanced?

You could imagine a system, for instance, with several tiers of ad-blocking features that either adds or subtracts from your monthly bill. Don't want to see any ads at all? Pay a little extra and the carrier will block them for you. Want a discount? Accept the data tracking and get a cheaper rate.

For U.S. Internet providers, ad-blocking raises some thorny regulatory questions. Under the government's net neutrality rules, carriers are forbidden from blocking lawful content (which includes ads), or setting up paid deals that favor some businesses over others.

What Digicel is doing — turning ad-blocking on by default, and charging advertisers a fee to get through the filter — might fly in the Caribbean countries where it operates. But it's less clear that it would work in the United States, said Marvin Ammori, a net neutrality lawyer and activist.

"While not everyone loves ads, having carriers act as toll-booths for ads doesn't further user-choice, and would clearly violate our rules," said Ammori.

Still, it's hard to deny that the incentives to behave this way are there. And if the net neutrality rules get struck down — as Internet providers are trying to do in court — they'll likely be rewritten, which will take time. During that period, Internet providers would not be legally bound by the no-blocking and no-paid-prioritization rules. Thus, by either selling your data to advertisers or by charging consumers a little extra for an ad-free experience, Internet providers could earn a little more on the side.

Is all this a good idea? Depends on your point of view. But what is becoming clear is that there's a business case for companies to start offering ad-blocking features, and Digicel may be the first of many.