Ad-blocking on iOS 9: why it’s good for you, bad for us

By Alvin Soon - on 18 Sep 2015, 3:15pm

Updated 21/9/15: Peace developer Marco Arment has pulled the app from the App Store. While still believing that “that ad blockers are necessary today”, Arment now thinks that the all-or-nothing approach Peace took to ad-blocking is “too blunt”, and achieving “... this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good”.

Updated 22/9/15: Apple is now refunding everyone who has bought Peace.

Internet ads. They can be pretty intrusive, disruptive, and downright creepy. Love them or hate them, you can’t avoid them. Well, can’t you?

On the desktop, you can install browser extensions like Adblock and Ghostery to block ads from loading, and prevent ad networks from tracking you. And with the release of iOS 9 yesterday, you can now do the same on your iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.

iOS 9 ships with a new content blocking extension for mobile Safari, which allows you to install apps that can help you to prevent ads and trackers from loading, while you’re surfing the web.

Besides preventing ad networks from tracking you — which explain why you can be looking at wallets on one site, for example, and then see ads for wallets when you go over to another site — blocking ads from loading also helps websites to load faster, leans out your data usage, and conserves your data life (because network activity lessens).

The savings can be substantial — software developer Dean Murphy discovered that the site iMore was loading 38 third-party scripts, and when he ran a content blocker on iOS 9, the same webpage took two seconds to load instead of 11.

Everybody wins — right?

Sounds great, right? More privacy, faster surfing, less data used — everybody wins? Well, not quite. A lot of people stand to lose, specifically, the people making the content that you’re surfing on the web, like this one.

Most of the major sites online, including ours, make money from advertising. Our hours are spent creating content that we freely give away, while advertisers pay us to show you ads beside this content.

Mobile advertising is a huge deal: mobile usage has already surged past PC usage, and mobile advertising is growing faster than all other digital advertising formats. More people will experience the internet for the first time in the next decade on mobile, rather than on the desktop. However desktop advertising goes, the future is clearly in mobile.

Not surprisingly, the internet has been abuzz with talk about how Apple’s content blocking extension will impact the bottom line for publishers since the feature was announced.

Ad-blockers on iOS are a big, big deal

But the shit-storm really exploded yesterday, when developer Marco Arment’s content-blocking app, Peace, soared up the US App Store’s paid charts to the number one spot, while Purify, another content-blocker, climbed to the fifth spot.

In Singapore, Peace briefly went up into the top paid apps yesterday, and Purity is now hanging at the seventh spot. Any hopes that content-blocking on mobile Safari would be an obscure, little-known feature for power users were quickly shattered.

And yes, as The Awl’s Matt Buchanan pointed out, there’s a certain irony with making money from an app that stops other people from making money.

So odds are good, very good, that the bottom-line for many major websites is going to look quite different from here on out.

There might be a slight respite for some — you can whitelist individual sites to run without being blocked on Peace, and Arment has said that in a future update, you’ll likely be able to whitelist certain ad networks. But most users are likely to just set the app to block everything and forget about it.

Apple’s thermonuclear war just dropped a big one on Google

While websites are likely to be the most hit; there’s no denying that Apple just dropped a solid thermonuclear bomb on Google, as succinctly pointed out by The Verge’s Nilay Patel.

Many — if not most — of the ads served online come from Google; it’s the main way the company makes its billions year on year. And wouldn’t you know, Apple just launched its own News app that serves Apple’s own iAd advertising, which cannot be blocked.

Is ad-blocking right or wrong? Is there a Better Way forward?

Not surprisingly, there’s been a backlash from publishers about content blocking, who argue that ad-blocking is unfair — somebody’s got to make the content that people enjoy for free, and they’ve got to be paid somehow.

And not surprisingly, there are people who are loving the ad-blockers, and argue that ads are shitty and that they never opted to see them anyway. Some understand that publishers should get paid, but they should find a Better Way to do it that doesn’t annoy the reader. However, suggestions for this Better Way range from, well, scant to impractical.

What is surprising is that there are people who are out in support of the publishers, and see ad-blocking as wrong. They agree that there is an exchange to be made here, and they’re willing to endure the advertising in order to see the content, so that the publishers can get paid to continue making content.

(See the very long comments thread on the afore-mentioned Verge post to read both sides of the argument.)

If publishers are smart, they’ll already be scrambling to find this next Better Way, but whether or not there actually is a Better Way remains to be seen, or whether this is another nail in the coffin for traditional publishing.

With yet one more OS update, Apple has changed everything yet again. And there’s no going back.


It would be hypocritical of me to write this without also coming clean with what I’ve done and what I believe; since I work for a website where my salary is paid for by advertising — many of which are, I have to say, annoying.

And yet — it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not advertising that annoys people, it’s annoying advertising that annoys people. I’ve actually sat through interesting ads (I watched this entire Monkey King/Pioneers Generation ad, twice), and I’ve previously clicked on ads that interested me.

However. I have no track with annoying ads, like those that pop up and obscure a site. Ads that have hard-to-find Close buttons. Ads that are huge for no reason and slow down the loading of a site, as well as rack up my data usage.

Don’t just take my word for it, Google did a study in 2014 which concluded that almost two-thirds of visitors who encountered an interstitial ad — an ad which blocked the entire screen — simply abandoned the page. So I’m not the only person who hates these kinds of annoying ads.

I’ve installed and am using Peace. I’ve found that webpages load faster, sometimes surprisingly so, and that surfing is a better experience with it. As a tech journalist, my recommendation is that you pay the US$2.99 for it and try it.

For what it’s worth, my iPhone belongs to me, and I have the right to decide what I want to see or not with it. Whether you think that’s right or wrong, well — that’s up to you.

Alvin Soon

Alvin Soon / Former Deputy Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.

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