Why cell carriers should leave ad blocking to the users

EU-based cell carrier Three recently caused a firestorm over plans to block ads at the network level. Since ad blockers are widely available as apps on smartphones and as extensions on browsers, it’s worth asking why the carriers feel the need to implement this functionality at such a structural level.

Their answer is that they are being protective of their customers’ privacy and user experience. Three UK, for example, says it wants to “give customers more control, choice and greater transparency over what they receive”.

Such assertions are misleading. Granted, it is true that blocking reduces bandwidth usage and guards against both malware and intrusive advertising practices. But there’s more to blocking than that. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that users block ads not because they hate ads or don't want to see them, but because they want to exert some measure of control over their online experience. Carriers conveniently ignore that part of the blocking conversation.

That’s why I believe that carrier-level blocking violates the spirit of blocking itself: it takes it from an exercise of power by the user and makes it into a sales point - and a revenue driver - for larger corporate interests.

Why carriers want to block

So, what are those interests?

First, there is the open and obvious profit motive: cell carriers that block ads intend to turn around and charge ad networks for letting ads back in. This is what AdBlock Plus has done, and while the carriers and their ad block partners are being coy about it at this point, it is hardly a secret that this is where they intend to go. When Three says, “The industry has to work together to give customers mobile ads they want and benefit from,” what it means is “ad networks need to pay us to let their ads through.”

It’s exactly this type of behavior that has provoked such swift opposition from publishers and ad industry trade bodies like the IAB, whose leader, Randall Rothenberg, has called them “an old-fashioned extortion racket.” That strategy – of blocking ads just to charge to let them back in – that has made it difficult for many industry players to address the underlying causes of of ad blocking, as an expression of user empowerment and choice.

Second, carriers seek to use ad blocking as a weapon in their ongoing dispute with media companies over bandwidth. Carriers have been open in their discontent about media companies' cumbersome ad technology, which they believe profit unfairly off of their networks without having to cough up the cash needed to maintain the costly infrastructure. In this sense, ad blocking is just the latest battleground in the wars over net neutrality.

Given that reality, carriers are looking to find a new revenue source to support their increasingly strained networks, which do require additional investment in costly infrastructure. Let’s face it, consumers are using more and more bandwidth, and paying less and less for it. Over the next five years, global mobile data traffic will grow to 30.6 exabytes per month – up from 3.7 exabytes in 2015, a 10x increase, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index (VNI). So there’s no way to avoid massive new infrastructure investment.

Meanwhile, increased competition has forced carriers to minimize how much of this cost is borne by the end user. They can only ask customers to pay so much, so they are already offering with "shared data plans" that increase the average pay in a way customers will accept, but there’s limit to how much they can discount.

And amid all these motivations, there is the basic fact that the underlying technology for carrier-level ad blocking has been around for years. So why have they suddenly rushed to implement it? It’s not because consumers suddenly woke up and decided they want to block all ads, or because carriers have suddenly become guardians of consumer privacy.

Don’t be fooled. It’s because these companies sense a business opportunity.

Don’t let carriers and browsers co-opt consumer choice

Ad blockers are blunt instruments, but they are just about the only means by which consumers can exercise control over their role in a free content value exchange. The growing adoption of ad blockers reflects consumers’ desire for sovereignty over their experience, their data, and their privacy. Making that choice for them defeats the purpose altogether.

That’s why consumers should regard carrier-level ad blocking with suspicion. Ad blocking is a legitimate response to mistreatment of consumers’ privacy and data. We should not allow the carriers to misappropriate that message of consumer control and use it to advance their own selfish interests. The power to block ads belongs in the hands of the user, not their cell carriers. Let the users do the blocking.

This post originally appeared on The Drum: http://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2016/05/19/why-cell-carriers-should-leave-ad-blocking-users