Image: Benjamin Child
On the face of it iOS 9 doesn’t sound like much, but it will cause a huge shift in the media landscape. Apple’s newly-released iOS 9 allows users to install a new type of software called “Safari Content Blockers”. These new apps for iPhones and iPads change the way that the Safari web browser loads websites – with their main aim being to block internet advertising and to stop advertising tracking software from running. They’re incredibly simple: you install a blocker from the App Store, spend a minute setting it up, and then almost all of the adverts on the internet simply disappear.
Since adverts are no longer downloaded, browsing the web on your iPhone is also suddenly much quicker, a lot more stable, uses less battery, and web pages require less of your data limit to load. Unsurprisingly, the number one paid app on the App Store is currently one of these so-called ‘ad-blockers’.
While it seems that ad-blocking is incredibly compelling for iPhone users, internet publications desperately need advertising revenues in order to survive. While reading an article online typically doesn’t have a physical cost attached, it isn’t truly free, and your access to the content is subsidised through being subjected to advertising. If you visit a website with an ad-blocker turned on, the publication will earn a meaningfully smaller amount of money for your visit.
Ad-blocking has existed on computers and other phones for years, and questions have consistently been raised about the ethics surrounding them. Supporters argue that internet advertising is intrusive – not only visually on a page, but also how advertising networks track users across the internet without their consent. Meanwhile, people who are against the practice of ad-blocking often equate it to simply stealing a publication’s content. Whether moral or not, Apple has given its millions of users a simple way of increasing their phone’s battery life and decreasing their data usage through Content Blockers – and it is unclear how many users will pause to truly consider the ethical repercussions. It’s also worth noting that Apple’s Safari is by far and away the most popular mobile web browser, accounting for 40-50% of all mobile internet usage.
iOS 9 also includes a new Apple-made “News” app. The service has already launched in the US, and is reported to launch in the UK soon. News generates an elegant and cohesive reading experience by bringing together journalist’s articles from publishers who have signed up to the service. Ad-blockers don’t work here, and Apple offers desirable rates to publications on the adverts it serves in-app. They appear to be positioning News directly against the open web, and WIRED has announced that one of its high-profile feature articles will be available exclusively on Apple News before they publish it on their own website.
This is the great confusion within iOS 9’s launch. Through it’s Safari Content Blockers, Apple has managed to infuriate the people they are simultaneously trying to win over with News.
For publishers, it seems that Apple is offering a solution to a problem that the company is also making worse. While the open web has never provided journalists with a sustainable revenue model, many writers fear that they will lose some of their freedoms by adopting these controlled services like Apple’s News or also Facebook’s Instant Articles service. It appears they have begun to relinquish their powers to the technology companies sooner than they first thought.