Ad blocking comes to mobile

Adblock Plus returns to Android, and telcos consider pervasive ad blocking

Jeff Fraser May 26, 2015


Adblock Browser’s new logo

Ad blocking has become more than a minor headache for advertisers and publishers — but so far it’s been confined to desktop, and hasn’t made much headway in the more tightly controlled environment of mobile. That could be about to change, as two ad blocking companies have stepped forward with new mobile-focused technologies.

One of those companies, Eyeo, makes of one of the web’s most popular ad blockers, Adblock Plus. Last week, Eyeo announced a new ad-free mobile browser for Android users, which unlike its predecessor has been approved by Google for download from the Android Play Store.

Meanwhile, an Israeli technology company called Shine says it’s testing mobile ad blocking technology for several unnamed mobile carriers in Europe that want ads removed by default from users’ phones.

On desktop, ad blocking is already pervasive. PageFair, an organization that tracks ad blocking adoption worldwide, estimated in the fall that 144 million people worldwide (around 5% of the global online population) use ad blocking software. Although ad blocking doesn’t directly cost advertisers money (ad blockers usually prevent an ad call from being made, so no ad is generated for the advertiser to pay for), it does cut down on the audience they can reach. That’s especially true in the desirable millennial segment, which have a much higher adoption rate: according to PageFair survey results, 41% of U.S. users aged 18-29 use an ad blocker.

But apps like Adblock Plus, which blocks ads for 50 million desktop users, haven’t been able to break into mobile thanks to preventative efforts by mobile OS providers. Eyeo’s new Adblock Browser, an open source variant built on Firefox’s source code, marks the company’s second attempt to break into the legitimate Android ecosystem, after Google banned its original app from the Play Store back in 2013.

At the time, Google explained the reasoning behind the advertiser-friendly decision by saying that Adblock interfered with other apps on the user’s device, something that Android apps aren’t permitted to do. Though the app remained available to download from ABP’s website, it saw far fewer downloads once it lost access to official channels.

But the same argument won’t work for Adblock Browser, which only blocks ads on pages that a user visits within the app. “We’re pretty sure there’s no grounds to ban a mobile browser with an adblocking feature that doesn’t interfere with other apps in any way,” wrote ABP developer Felix Dahlke on ABP’s blog.

In fact, the beta version of the app has already been approved by Google, and is available on the Play Store for approved beta testers to download. Since the announcement last Wednesday, it’s been downloaded by between 1,000 and 5,000 users.

Advertisers may not have anything to worry about yet. Whether Adblock Browser can gain mainstream traction when it launches publicly in August will depend on whether users care enough about not seeing ads to give up the features and functionality they’ve come to expect from market-leading browsers like Chrome and Firefox. On desktop, where most popular blockers operate as extensions to big-name browsers, they haven’t had to make that choice.

Telecoms to block mobile ads?

Perhaps a more worrying precedent for advertisers is that set by Shine, another ad blocking software developer, which the Financial Times reported earlier this month has been working with at least one European mobile provider. The Times alleged that the unnamed carrier, which has tens of millions of subscribers, has already installed the software at its data centres, and plans to roll it out on an opt-in basis before the end of 2015.

In an interview last week with Adweek, Shine founder Roi Carthy confirmed that it has the technology to block all mobile ads – on both apps and browsers — and that it’s in talks with multiple carriers to implement it.

“It is a high-stakes game, but when you boil it down, from the perspective of Shine, it’s quite simple: consumers deserve to choose if they want ad blocking or not,” Carthy told Adweek. “We believe that is a right.”

The 25-person startup’s mission is to cut down on the significant amount of users’ mobile data and battery life that ads consume. Carthy points the finger squarely at ad tech companies, which can tack on dozens of extra URL calls to a webpage visit or app session.

Unlike ABP, Shine offers a whitelabel solution to telecom providers looking to cut down on signal traffic, or charge users for a premium bundled service. According to the Times story that touched off the controversy, officials at the European mobile carrier are considering using the technology to target Google in an effort to force the company to pay out a cut of its revenues.

The tactic isn’t without precedent; Google is among several companies that pay Eyeo a portion of its ad revenues to serve its ads to users with Adblock Plus installed. But it’s very unlikely the carrier’s actions would stand up in court, since charging content providers based on the type of content they provide violates European regulations around net neutrality.

Still, there doesn’t seem to be anything stopping European carriers from offering ad blocking as a paid opt-in service for users. That would likely help to legitimize the ad blocking movement, and could mean that ad blockers will start to eat into mobile advertisers’ reach the way desktop blockers have — not to mention the mobile content that many publishers are already struggling to monetize.