When the “Free” Internet Becomes Too Costly

Jack Zoephel (MBA '16)

   

The rise in ad blocking software usage does not mean the sky is falling. People just want more relevant, less

invasive clouds. I admit, it is not a perfect metaphor. But those preparing for the “internet apocalypse” and labeling

users of ad blocking software “thieves” are disregarding a much simpler perspective: ads, as they exist now, are too

costly for users. Too costly in terms of service interruptions, creative quality, repetitiveness, or any number of

other dimensions—take your pick. People are not misguided in feeling that ads increasingly interrupt their online

experiences. Spending trends among advertisers show a strong shift towards more invasive forms of advertising,

especially on mobile. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and PricewaterhouseCooper’s 2015

first-half Internet Advertising Revenue report, mobile advertising spend posted an explosive 55% increase year-on-

year over first-half 2014. Within that, mobile display advertising accounted for just over 40% of that growth, by far

the largest within mobile. Mobile display includes banner ads, digital video, digital audio, sponsorships, and rich

media—the most invasive types of ads. In the US, the mobile display advertising boom is outpacing smartphone

adoption, meaning the average user is likely being shown more ads. While the primary use of ad blocking occurs on

desktops, if this trend continues without a serious move toward user- centered ad delivery, mobile may soon

follow. This is even more plausible given Apple’s decisions to include content blockers in Safari for iOS 9, and

allowing apps like 1Blocker, Refine, and Purify in the App Store. Last month, the IAB took a much-needed step,

releasing a new set of technical standards for online ads: the Light, Encrypted, Ad choice supported, Non-invasive

(L.E.A.N.) framework. Light means that ads should be light on required processing power, so as not to diminish a

device’s battery life. Encrypted refers to safety: users should be able to trust their personal information is not at

risk every time an ad loads. Ad choice supported intends to give users more freedom to opt-in or opt-out of certain

tracking and retargeting processes. Lastly, Non-invasive means just that—people are tired of being interrupted.

This is an important, challenging problem. The more holistic L.E.A.N. approach is a great start, but it is just the

beginning of a shift towards focusing on optimizing user experience. The music industry was given a similar wake-

up call at the turn of the century with Napster; sixteen years on, while it certainly hurt large companies’ revenues,

it didn’t kill music. Panic over the rise of ad blocking software usage is energy better spent on the user experience:

innovating, iterating, and improving.