Apple Boots Been Choice Again, But The (Former) In-App Ad Blocker Is Already Planning Its Next Move

BeenChoiceThe guillotine has fallen for Been Choice, the embattled in-app ad blocker that was allowed back into the App Store after being unceremoniously turfed out in October.

As of Jan. 8, almost three months to the day after its first run-in with Apple, Been Choice was notified that it's going to be removed from the App Store, seemingly for good. Although it’s still downloadable from the App Store for the moment, Been Choice has been notified that its removal is imminent.

And there’s another insult to the injury. Apple is also terminating the company’s developer account for violating Section 3.2(f), the bit of the Apple Developer Program License Agreement that warns developers not to “commit any act intended to interfere with the Apple Software or related services.”

“They’re taking the nuclear option,” said Been Inc. co-founder David Yoon. “Developer account removal is pretty harsh because it prevents us from using our company name for a year to reapply. When Apple contacted us with that information we thought, ‘Wow, what did we do to deserve this?’”

Apple wasn’t forthcoming with the answer, and when Yoon called his representative on Apple’s app review team for clarification, Yoon said the rep was as surprised to hear the news as he had been.

When Been Choice kicked up a mini controversy in October, the crux of the issue seemed to center on security, not ad blocking.

Since day one, Been Choice has offered two options: block and earn, although most of the coverage the company received was laser-focused on its in-app ad blocking capability. In Block Mode, users could, obviously, choose to block ads. In Earn Mode, users who decided not to block ads would be compensated with points, discounts and rewards, including gift cards, for opting in to share their non-PII browsing behavior data with third parties, like advertisers.

Originally, Been Choice operated through a virtual private network (VPN) that used, as VPNs generally do, root certificates to filter ad traffic and block ads and third-party trackers in apps, including Facebook, Pinterest, Yahoo and Google.

At the time, Apple deemed the practice “no bueno” because of privacy concerns, so Been Choice reconfigured its app to remove the root certs and was ultimately let back into the App Store.

And then all was quiet on the western front. Been Choice, which has around 25,000 downloads, focused on finding more partners to power the “Earn Mode” part of its app.

But Yoon suspects Earn Mode is part of what kindled Apple’s ire. Perhaps Apple isn’t jazzed by a third party – one it had to go back and forth with on a security issue – positioning itself as a middleman whose main value proposition centers on handling consumer data. Or, perhaps, Apple believes that allowing consumers to sell their own data to businesses interferes with the services that Apple provides.

“If ad blocking was the problem, all Apple had to do was tell us and we would have been more than happy to remove it,” Yoon said. “So, the only thing I can think of is that it must be the model itself, the fact that we’re trying to carve out a segment of users that want a different sort of relationship with companies, and with companies that want access to better data.”

In Yoon’s view, the ecosystem is split into two sections when it comes to data: the haves and the have-nots.

“There’s Facebook, Google and, of course, Apple, on one hand, and then there are all of the other companies out there just sort of scrambling for some sort of purchase on the user information that drives most of the innovation in the consumer-facing space,” Yoon said. “Maybe Apple wants to be the gatekeeper of this, a champion of user privacy. Perhaps they’ll even have a competing product, I don’t know.”

DavidYoonAlthough the harshness of Apple’s rebuke stings, Been Choice isn’t beaten yet, Yoon said.

The company plans to release a web app version of Been Choice that revolves around Earn Mode – aka no ad blocking – within the next four weeks to be distributed outside of the App Store.

Getting rid of ad blocking in the web app is mainly a practical consideration. “It doesn’t make sense to go outside of Apple’s ecosystem to block when blocking is so much more efficient using their tools,” said Yoon. “And, anyway, there are lots of other ad-blocking options out there for people who want to block.”

In addition to getting the web app out the door, the focus going forward will be on fundraising and reaching out to brands, retailers, agencies and publishers to discuss potential partnerships.

The pitch to partners will be around transparency and quality. Brands will get access to first-party data collected with user opt-in, while users get rewards and a more transparent relationship with advertisers.

There will be challenges, though. For one, scale is going to be an issue. And it’s also not a completely new idea. Others, including a startup called Enliken, which folded in 2013, have tried to give users more control over their data, and failed. There just wasn’t enough user interest.

But Yoon is optimistic.

“We’re talking about people sharing their data with brands through an explicit consent-driven relationship,” Yoon said. “We actually view what we’re doing as an ultimate solution to ad blocking.”

In other words, it’s about choice. If a user chooses to block, that’s fine. But if they’re presented with a viable value exchange, maybe they’ll play. That’s the idea, anyway.

And the industry is looking for solutions, especially as the debate around consumer privacy intensifies.

“What happened to us wasn’t great, but it also wasn’t a death knell – and it definitely wasn’t a death knell for the increased demand for privacy and control over the ownership of data that we’re going to see going forward,” he said. “It’s a notion that’s been around for 20 years and it’s coming to a crescendo now.”


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