Apple's Support for Mobile Ad Blocking Could Cost Consumers More Than They Realize

Blocking Ads Isn't a Victimless Act -- and the Victims Aren't Just Advertisers

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With the addition of new "content blocker" support for its Safari mobile browser, Apple is joining the surge of anti-ad advocates introducing ways to prevent mobile advertising from reaching users.

On its face, mobile ad blocking sounds like an idea that consumers should love. In the case of Apple, people can use a good internet browser on their phones and tablets -- Safari is by far the most popular mobile browser in the United States -- with potentially none of the slowdown in page loading that ads can cause, none of the tracking that vexes some and none of the visual clutter.

But the broader blowback against advertising on mobile devices has large implications for some of the internet's most prominent companies and most popular services. Advertising funds the operations of some of the most popular web services available. Blocking the ability to serve ads threatens the user's entire existence and means of engagement.

Put another way, ad blocking is not victimless -- and the victims could comprise not just marketers and publishers but consumers as well.

You can start with Google, which funds its search engine, Maps and YouTube services with advertising that comprised almost 90% of the company's revenue in 2014. But this concept also includes, to varying degrees, Facebook (which owns popular mobile services Instagram, Paper and Messenger); Twitter (which owns Vine and Periscope); Yahoo (which owns Tumblr); Flipboard; Pinterest; Yelp; and even, to some extent, Microsoft's Bing and Skype.

This fundamental concept, of advertising supporting free services, spans just about every online news and opinion site out there, at a time when more and more people are getting more of their news and social-media posts delivered through their phones and tablets.

If Apple's move puts wind in the sails of ad blockers, if the existing mobile blockers gain momentum and others join the party, they could harm the fastest-growing segment of the online advertising business and the companies that depend on those revenues to provide services used by hundreds of millions of consumers.

Faster page-loading times won't mean a lot if those pages' publishers go out of business.

Now, lots of questions remain unanswered about Apple's content-blocker plans. For instance, it's possible that Apple's initiative won't be enough to lead to widespread ad-blocking in the mobile market, where, after all, ad blockers have already been available for those who wanted them. Far more smartphones use Google's Android operating system than Apple's iOS in any case, especially overseas. And Google has every incentive to find a way to keep ad blocking from running wild on Android.

But it's important as the details are filled in that Apple makes sure it doesn't kill off the advertising that makes all the services and news sites we all use and love possible. A nuanced approach with significant flexibility would be an important start.

This is not an "ads or ad-blocking" discussion -- it's more complex than that, and there are a multitude of innovative ad solutions being introduced regularly enough that Apple needs to continue testing and iterating. Because if ad-blocking is the answer, consumers could end up with a short-term win but a long-term loss, undermining many of the sites and services that make the mobile business so vibrant and attractive today.

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