Is a free internet a thing of the past?

If ad blocking continues to experience the growth it has until now, marketers will have to become far smarter about how they get their products in front of consumers


 The music and film industries have long been sounding the warning bell about the demise of their industries due to piracy. It’s because, they say, everyone – especially millennials – now expect everything for free. While this may or may not be the case in music and film, it’s fair to say that pretty much every user of the internet expects it to be free.

The only costs a user associates with the internet are for the devices they use to access it and the data package the provider charges for. If you asked someone if they’d be willing to pay for looking up the cinema times at their local cinema or even logging on to their favourite social network, it’s almost certain the answer would be no. However, most users probably fail to realise why or even how it’s possible that the internet is available for free.

As we all know, the answer for the most part is of course ads. Ads fund pretty much all of the quality content online, from newspapers and blogs to social networks and even YouTube. The problem with this model of funding is that over time users have become irritated with irrelevant and badly served ads
and are now turning to ad bloc-king technology to enable them to skip the ads.

Ad blocking has been discussed at length in tech circles but not many outside a small, tech-savvy user base have been aware of it – or have been using it. However, this is beginning to change with greater numbers of users starting to become aware of the technology. Ad blocking was even featured on Howard Stern’s long running radio show in America last month. Shortly after the segment was on air ‘Ad blocker’ was trending on Apple’s App store.

You know things have gone mainstream when Apple announces they will include the technology as standard. It’s been confirmed that Apple will include a ‘content blocking’ option in the next iOS release. iOS 9 will allow users to install apps that block ads, trackers and other unwanted content for the first time.

It’s not hard to understand why users are adapting to this new technology in droves (198 million users are now using ad blockers around the world). Pages load on average 90 per cent faster when ads are removed. This is a phenomenal change for users and will have a significant impact in the real world.

Consumers are not always connected to wi-fi and, even when they are, the network is often constrained for much of the day to balance load by an internet service provider. Slow pages and long loading times are the bane of many user’s web experience. Users have also been subjected to a barrage of more and more ads from all sources. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and now Instagram have all either introduced – in Instagram’s case – or vastly increased, in the case of the rest, paid advertising and subsequently bom-barded users with messages at every opportunity.

While this is an interesting development for the advertising industry as a whole, in the short term it’s more of an issue for publishers. It is estimated that ad blocking will cost publishers nearly $22 billion in 2015 and the use of the technology grew by 41 per cent globally in the last 12 months. Given the numbers involved, this is something that now warrants some serious attention.

Marketers are going to have to significantly up their game. People like great advertising. What they don’t like is bad, un-targeted, ill-conceived ads that get in the way of their content consumption. In recent years publishers have become lazy, piling script after script on the page with scant regard for the user experience, so it’s understandable that the uptake of ad blocking technology has started to grow significantly.

In the long term, if ad blocking continues to experience the growth it has up to now marketers will have to be far smarter about how they get their products in front of consumers. It’s highly likely that publishers will have to move into the native advertising space in order to circumvent ad blocking software. Whether this is a good or bad thing remains to be seen. Native advertising is great in some respects but can be a problem when consumers don’t realise they’re being advertised to.

No one as yet knows how this will play out. We can only guess. It’s unlikely that users will agree to pay for content at source. When Geekzone made this offer to its readers only 1,000 of its 350,000 readers were willing to pay $2 a month for an ad-free option (source Computerworld). So what are we left with?

Ultimately, if the internet is no longer funded by ads, will there even be an internet as we know it today? The web has evolved since its inception so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that change is coming. A faster, less cluttered internet with fewer annoying ads seems like a good evolutionary step. However, at present the powerhouses of the internet are the ones collecting data and selling ads – and much more than that (that you’re probably unaware of). For now, we must wait and watch and see how the ad – and content – blocking begins to sow its seeds across users’ devices across the world.


(Mayank Garg is head of mobile and content at MediaCom MENA)