Content blocking

About three weeks ago I gave in: I turned on Firefox’s Tracking Protection feature. Last week I installed 1Blocker on my iPhone. Until now, I’d avoided ad- and tracker-blocking software. I felt uncomfortable hiding that which provided sites’ revenues. Looking under the hood at sites I regularly visit, however, I realise now that I’ve been a fool to hold out for so long.

I have two aims with both Tracking Protection and 1Blocker:

  1. Avoid being tracked online. Almost always this involves blocking adverts. In addition, it covers Facebook/Twitter/Google Like-type buttons.
  2. To simply make the web faster.

The main argument put forward to against using blocking software, and the reason I’ve held out for so long, is that as a by-product of improving your web experience, you remove revenue from the sites you visit when you block the trackers and the adverts which, purportedly, fund them.

The story goes: by reading a webpage, you’ve agreed to the means the publisher has decided to use to derive money from that page. I’ve come to see that this is specious: the publisher’s advertising and tracking software has executed long before I’ve read the article or even considered whether it’s worth providing my data in order to enjoy it. If I have no choice, there is no agreement. Implied consent by visiting a URL isn’t valid: it’s not legal to make me agree to a contract whose content I have not been shown.

The first reason leads directly and obviously to the second. The images, tracking pixels, JavaScript files, movies and other cruft employed to advertise and track have swelled to epic proportions.

The savings speak for themselves. Here are the number of requests and amount of data downloaded for two popular news sites, with Tracking Protection turned on and off:

Economist

  • HTML size: 84kb
  • TP Off: 580 requests; 13MB
  • TP On: 150 requests; 6MB
  • Saved: 74% requests, 53% data

Guardian

  • HTML size: 81kb
  • TP Off: 191 requests; 6MB
  • TP On: 29 requests; 1.6MB
  • Saved: 85% requests, 73% data

In addition, with Tracking Protection turned off, both sites send ten or so requests per minute to various tracking services, presumably to gauge “engagement with content”.

On a wifi connection on a laptop, the extra work doesn’t matter too much. On a phone, however, the extra data and energy used is significant. It’s worth fighting against to gain longer battery life and more useful data from my tiny 500MB data plan.

Many pundits have suggested that Apple has some ulterior motive to “kill Google” or other such rubbish. To me it’s clear that content blocking is aimed at improving battery life and increasing user satisfaction of iPhones and iPads. I suspect Apple would have shipped blocking by default but for the need to avoid being pilloried by publishers and advertisers.

Long ago publishers made a Faustian bargain with advertisers. Unlike Faust, the rewards ended up being fairly scant. Now both advertisers and publishers are now reaping their rewards: this has gone too far and we readers fight back the only way we can.

I used to avoid ad-blocking software. I have changed my mind. I now realise the implied agreement readers made with publishers was torn up by publishers and advertisers long ago, if it ever existed at all. For readers, there are few cons to blocking tracking. Let the publishers and their advertisers figure their own way out of this tarpit of their own making.

I liken this to the publishers’ thoughts of agreement above. If in their view I imply consent to advertising when I visit a page, I will view their sending data to me as implied consent that they are happy for me to block their tracking, advertising and other ne’er-do-wells.

I suggest you do too.

.:.