Conflicted Developer Pulls ‘Peace’ Ad-Blocking App

18 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Apple’s top-selling app says goodbye.

Ad blockers, as it turns out, can be a bit of a poison pill. Only a day after the launch of Apple’s new mobile operating system, iOS 9, a number of new applications aimed at blocking ads shot up to the top of the App Store’s charts.The maker of Peace, a bestselling ad blocker for iPhones, has pulled the app just days after its launch saying the app’s success “just doesn’t feel good”.

Marco Arment, a prominent Web developer who previously co-founded Tumblr, has decided to remove his ad-blocking app called Peace from the Apple App Store after almost two days atop the charts.Marco Arment, co-founder of Tumblr and creator of Instapaper, just announced that he was pulling his popular ad-blocking app, Peace, from Apple’s app store. Unless they’re fine-tuned to allow ads from sites that publish them respectfully and block advertising on those that do not, they can unfairly affect those who rely on advertising to keep a website afloat.

Peace and other ad blockers like Crystal and Purify climbed the ranks after Apple said it would let consumers download tools for iOS 9 to keep ads off mobile Web pages. Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit,” Arment wrote in a blog post today. “Peace required that all ads be treated the same — all-or-nothing enforcement for decisions that aren’t black and white,” he continued. “This approach is too blunt, and Ghostery and I have both decided that it doesn’t serve our goals or beliefs well enough. If we’re going to effect positive change overall, a more nuanced, complex approach is required than what I can bring in a simple iOS app.” Peace relied on Ghostery’s database to block ads on Apple’s mobile browser. Depending on the strength of one’s wi-fi connection and the reserve of one’s patience, navigating this ad-speckled landscape can be tolerable or aggravating. One problem Arment cites is that the ad-blocking directory he was using, Ghostery, doesn’t distinguish between “good” ads that don’t slow down the mobile web, and “bad” ones that do.

Log in with the Apple ID you use to make purchases, click Apps in the toolbar to filter to just your app purchases, click “Report a Problem” next to your purchase of Peace, and fill out the form. This app and others like it take advantage of Apple’s new iPhone operating system, which gives developers the ability to make apps that remove ads displayed in the browser. Though Peace did allow you to whitelist publisher sites if want to see the ads—like Arment’s own Marco.org—it doesn’t allow you to whitelist specific advertising publishers. But mobile ads face mounting controversy with their use of “tracking” to follow users and lack of clarity over how people’s personal information is shared.

Take, for example, ads from advertising publisher The Deck that run on Arment’s website. “The Deck is unusually well-behaved for an ad provider: its ads are small, unintrusive, non-animated, and classy, and while it’s loaded by a third-party JavaScript include, it doesn’t set cookies or perform any tracking. Web advertising and behavioral tracking are “out of control”, Arment wrote when he launched the app. “They’re unacceptably creepy, bloated, annoying, and insecure, and they’re getting worse at an alarming pace.” Ad and tracker abuse is an even bigger issue on mobile than on a desktop, he said, where ads are much larger and harder to dismiss, trackers are harder to detect and they slow down page loads, drain battery power and waste cellular data. The explosion in popularity of ad blockers has led to a bitter ethics debate between those who see them as an existential threat to the free Internet and those who are sick of barrages of obnoxious — and sometimes harmful — ads and arrays of trackers that trace their online movements to better target ads. “Ad-blocking is a kind of war — a first-world, low-stakes, both-sides-are-fortunate-to-have-this-kind-of-problem war, but a war nonetheless, with damage hitting both sides,” Arment said.

Bad ads are more noticeable and obnoxious on mobile, where bandwidth is already constrained, screens are small, and users often pay for internet access on a metered basis. Dean Murphy, who developed the ad blocking app Crystal — which has now taken over the top spot from Peace — also said he felt conflicted about the app’s popularity. An inexpensive, one-time ad-blocker purchase that increases privacy, makes the web faster, and prevents wasting money on bandwidth to load bloated ads sounds like an attractive proposition, whether it’s ethical or not. Murphy gave away the app for free to the first 100,000 users to download it, then set a price of $0.99. “The success of it is kind of bittersweet because I love the Internet and I love the websites that are on it,” Murphy told Mashable. “But at the same time, I hate the mobile ads industry…I just find it very intrusive and very hostile.”

We contacted 28 major media companies to ask about how ad blockers affected revenue and none would provide specifics, nor would they characterize what percentage of visitors to their sites used the software. Some sites like The Awl and The Verge have been vocal about the need for content providers to get paid—thousands of sites, including Macworld, are supported by the same kinds of advertising that these extensions are designed to block. It’s worth noting that Arment’s blog post doesn’t come out against ad blocking—in fact, he recommends a couple of other competing iOS blockers, as well as Ghostery’s browser extensions for the desktop, which make it easy to whitelist your favorite sites, or disable trackers one by one. I see war in the Tao Te Ching sense: it should be avoided when possible; when that isn’t possible, war should be entered solemnly, not celebrated,” he wrote. “Even though I’m ‘winning’, I’ve enjoyed none of it. Either way, ad blockers represent a microcosm of the much larger changes happening online—shifts that will reverberate through the media and technology industries in ways that are fully underway but still difficult to parse.

Just yesterday he went hands-on with several blockers including Peace to explain the differences in their approaches and how you can pick the right one for your needs. Not everyone will go through the trouble of asking for a refund, of course, which means that Arment will still likely pocket some decent income from his efforts, given that it takes a surge of downloads – thousands, in fact – to reach the #1 position.

Glenn also wrote a very helpful how-to on using blockers to selectively filter the worst offenders, like full-screen popovers, while still allowing the other display ads that help the site in question pay its bills. Arment disputes these figures, however, saying that while he doesn’t have today’s sales report yet, that estimate is “almost certainly far too high.” Plus, he points out, he still needs to pay “substantial portions of the revenue to other people,” including Apple, Ghostery, to taxes, a designer, lawyer, and accountant. That’s according to Casey Johnston, who quoted the site’s publisher as having told her that up to 85 percent of The Awl’s revenue is blockable as a result. If you want to get really deep into the ad-blocking frenzy this week, Johnston’s piece is a must-read, along with articles by Nilay Patel, and Annalee Newitz, in The Verge and Gizmodo, respectively. Facebook, all with their own revenue platforms,” Nilay Patel wrote, in his article for The Verge. “Google has the web, Facebook has its app, and Apple has the iPhone.” It’s also no mistake, as Newitz pointed out, that Apple starting allowing ad blockers on the same operating system that features a news app that can’t be deleted from people’s homescreens.

On phones, its ads mostly display in apps—and Apple’s new ad-blocking capabilities only affect the phone’s browser. “In our case specifically, ad blockers haven’t had as much impact—in part because the bulk of ads shown on/by Facebook are delivered on Facebook and in other apps that integrate with us,” Adam Isserlis, a Facebook spokesman, said in a statement he provided. Facebook’s latest earnings report shows mobile-ad revenue represented approximately 76 percent of overall advertising revenue for the company in the second quarter of this year, up from 62 percent in the same period the year before. Media companies are, in effect, watching two business models crumble at once: their traditional business, and whatever business they were able to cobble together on the desktop.

The “digital first” movement that emerged among print-media companies in response to the Internet has been replaced with a “mobile first” attitude. This will come in the form of sponsored articles designed to look like editorial, and search results paid for by companies who want to rank first on Google—only the lines will, Moore believes, become increasingly blurry. “Users will be incredibly offended if they ask a question like, ‘Where’s the best Caribbean restaurant in Pittsburgh?’ and the question-and-answer system answers in favor of the restaurant that’s paying… But that’s what you’re going to see,” Moore said. “There will still be a lot of controversy in this area but it will be about how the content is not purely advertising and not purely organic. It will merge into this mysterious combination.” In the short term, ad blockers will make web pages cleaner, faster, and more mobile-friendly. “I still believe that ad blockers are necessary today,” Arment wrote.

Depending on what they target, ad blockers encourage a more pervasive form of advertising—a kind that’s harder to avoid, harder to identify, and impossible to shut out.

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