Could Ad Blocking Spell The End Of The Free Internet?

Much of our online content is funded by advertising, so what would an online world look like without that funding?

Ever since Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1991, the internet has been underpinned by the principles of freedom and free access. Despite the connection charges levied by internet service providers, websites are almost always free to access. It’s something we now take for granted, to the extent that paying to view sites like Buzzfeed or YouTube seems like a bizarre concept.
However, a minor software revision by Apple may have instigated a chain of events that will destroy the free internet as we know it. Apple’s latest iOS9 platform supports content blocking. While this is fine for blocking malware and pop-ups, it will also block adverts on mobile web browsers. This news is unlikely to be a cause for upset for iPhone and iPad users, who are heartily fed up of being disrupted by annoying popup adverts and auto-playing video streams as they browse the web.
What these people frequently overlook is the fact that advertising pays for the vast majority of online content. While some websites – such as Wikipedia – are funded on donations and occasional fundraising activities, most non-retail websites depend on advertising to survive. Ad revenue funds journalists / video editors / bloggers / designers / webmasters as they maintain and populate content-based websites and forums. Without those annoyingly intrusive adverts, content would dry up and the internet would revert back to its formative state as a haven for enthusiastic amateurs and BBS posters who don’t expect to be paid for their spare time.
Fortunately iOS9’s ad-blocking won’t prevent other browsers from displaying adverts as before. However, imagine walking into your local cellphone store and being presented with a choice between ad-free browsing on an iPhone or ad-heavy displays on an Android device. The choice would be an easy one, and for that reason alone Android will almost certainly follow Apple’s lead and ramp up its ad-blocking efforts. That in turn would threaten the popularity of desktop browsers such as Chrome and Firefox, which would have to follow suit. And then suddenly, the World Wide Web as we know it would look – and be financed – very differently.
An internet without advertising would be like a magazine industry without advertising – almost immediately unviable. From Netflix subscriptions to the annual licence fee, the content we consume has to be paid for somehow. While the Times Online and FT websites have retreated behind paywalls, other publishers and media outlets offer free and unlimited online access supported by lucrative advertising revenue. Take that funding model away, and the content itself will quickly follow.
As is so often the case, Apple’s ad-blocking software is less altruistic than it first appears. The majority of adverts displayed on our computers are provided by Google’s DoubleClick for Publishers package, and Google are arguably Apple’s biggest rival nowadays. Since Google stands to lose most from a collapse in paid online advertising, Apple can enjoy a short-term win-win of damaging a rival and offering its customers a refreshingly advert-free browsing experience. The long-term consequences are far harder to quantify.
In the short term, the big losers in this global technology war will be small or independent online media outlets who don’t have a print edition to shore up their balance sheet and can’t independently negotiate long-term sponsorship or advertising packages to stay solvent. Entertainment sites could quickly wither and die without funding. The only other method of survival in a post-advertising world would involve subscriptions, and it’s questionable whether sites like The Onion or The Daily Mash would be able to persuade enough readers to hand over their credit card details. In such a scenario, the last 25 years of free and unlimited web browsing may begin to resemble a bygone golden age.

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