Content Blocking In iOS 9: Where Some See Doom, Others See Opportunity

iOS9NewsappPublishers are concerned about content blocking in iOS 9 – but how concerned should they be?

At first glance, the single brief reference to content blocking in Apple’s iOS 9 release notes seems innocuous enough.

“Use the Content Blocking extension point to give Safari a block list describing the content that you want to block while your users are browsing the web.”

But Dean Murphy, an indie app developer based in the United Kingdom, is proving otherwise with an ad-blocking app called Crystal, currently in beta. Crystal, which takes advantage of content blocking enablement in iOS 9, reduces mobile page load time by more than 70%. (It really does seem to work.)

At first blush, it appears Apple simply allows devs to create extensions that block offending content using a static blacklist that would need to be manually updated by the developers and manually refreshed by the user each time new content is added.

To be effective for ad blocking, the blacklist would have to be extraordinarily large in order to capture every ad on every page – and that could cause latency and performance issues, potentially negating the point of using a content blocker in the first place.

“That’s not something that’s going to work for ad blocking at scale because it’s a game of cat and mouse,” said Marc Guldimann, CEO and founder of mobile ad company Sled.

That, however, is not the end of the story.

Enter: Crystal

Making a content blocker is fairly easy, said Murphy, who turned his mind to the task at the end of June. What’s complicated is enabling the blacklist to automatically sync in the background without a user having to take any action – and Murphy found a way.

At its Worldwide Developer Conference in 2014, Apple released a developer framework called CloudKit that allows app creators to share data between their app and iCloud. Murphy can store his block list in iCloud and push auto-updates to any Crystal user without the Crystal app needing to be open or the user having to do anything.

“It’s similar to how podcasting apps work,” said Murphy, who plans to monetize Crystal with a one-time fee at the time of download.

Size isn’t an issue, either. Apple compresses Murphy’s seven-megabyte block list file to mere kilobytes through a proprietary Apple technology called Bitcode. Making the list smaller enables Safari to block against it far more efficiently.

The foundation for the Crystal blacklist is built off of EasyList, the same block list filter powering Adblock Plus. Murphy visited myriad mobile websites to beef that list up.

For the time being, Murphy is updating the Crystal list every couple of days. He also built in a report site function so that his beta testers can alert him when they notice that advertising is still showing up when it should be blocked.

“From my point of view, this is exactly the kind of app Apple wanted when they went looking for Safari extensions,” Murphy said. “I can’t think of any other use for it other than blocking adverts, JavaScript and cookies.”

Traditional ad blocking on desktop cross-references block lists with visited sites, first examining all the content on a given page and then engaging the block function whenever there’s a match.

By contrast, blocking extensions supported by Safari never load the content to begin with, which means there’s no record of which sites have been visited.

Not to mention the lower barrier to entry, Murphy said.

“The main difference between iOS and desktop is that the App Store is just so accessible ” he said. “I’d argue that more people know how to download an app than know how to download browsers and extensions. But it all depends on how Apple decides to promote this feature to its customers.”

iDon’t Spy

Although Apple characteristically prefers to stay mum about, well, everything, it shed some light on the impetus behind enabling third-party content blocking extensions in iOS 9.

CrystalblockerAs Apple engineer Benjamin Poulain wrote on the Surfin’ Safari blog hosted by WebKit.org in June, “We have been building these features with a focus on providing better control over privacy. … There is a whole universe of features that can take advantage of the content blocker API around privacy or better user experience.”

A desire to limit tracking? Facebook and Google in particular jump quickly to mind. (In his blog post, Poulain provided a mini tutorial on how to facilitate content blocking in iOS 9. In the code he uses as his hypothetical example, Poulain creates a tongue-in-cheek rule to block “evil-tracker.js.”)

One could also argue that by potentially cutting off ad revenue on the mobile web, Apple is pushing publishers to adopt its forthcoming News app.

But Ben Barokas, CEO and founder of Sourcepoint and former founding CEO of AdMeld, isn’t convinced that Apple’s goal is to throttle publishers in their attempts to monetize.

“I do believe that Apple is doing this with the user’s best interests in mind and that it understands that without revenue, content doesn’t exist,” said Barokas. “Apple may be strong-arming publishers into Apple News, but you could say the same thing about Facebook’s Instant Articles. Even Google uses its own methodologies to bend publishers to their will, as much as I love my former employer.”

Ad Balk

That said, tech and science publisher Purch is bracing for the burn.

“A very large percentage of our audience is already ad blocking us today on desktop and it’s costing us revenue,” said Michael Hannon, VP of yield and revenue optimization at Purch, noting that about 20% of its visitors block ads on desktop.

But in a sense, users themselves are caught between the same rock and hard place as the publishers, just without a bottom line to consider. It’s not necessarily the ads themselves that annoy – rather, it’s the tag-laden creative and tracker-heavy websites that slow down page loads in their quest to collect data and serve targeted impressions.

“One of my beta testers actually said to me, ‘I don’t like ad blocking, but I want speed and I want to use less data,'” Murphy said, pointing to a test he ran in June on iMore.com. Murphy noted that the site, which is owned by Purch and covers Apple-related news, had markedly slow mobile load times – up to 11 seconds in some cases.

A quick Ghostery scan shows that iMore has 10 trackers running in the background, including Google Analytics and New Relic, which pretty much do the same thing. But 10 trackers on a site is fairly typical, or even low. Bloomberg has 21. Vice has 14. AdExchanger has 13. The New York Times and The Washington Post carry 11 trackers each.

Does that make ad tech the enemy?

“According to the IAB, 55% of programmatic revenue, the majority of dollars, went to ad tech companies in 2014,” said Jason Kint, CEO of publisher trade organization Digital Content Next. “I don’t want to point fingers, because this is an ecosystemwide problem, but there is a large number of companies that make lots of money off of digital advertising, and they aren’t thinking about the consumers.”


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