Internet Services come with a Cost

In tech news this week, A European Union agency has ruled that UK based mobile network Three’s plans to offer ad-blockers would violate net neutrality.

An interesting concept and an even more interesting ruling.  “Net neutrality” simply means that all web traffic should be treated equally.  Therefore, whether it’s news, games, weather reports or advertisements, it should all be allowed to be displayed on your device without any interference from the Internet Service Provider.

I’ve never met anyone who has said “I don’t mind ads being displayed on websites”.  The truth is, they can be an annoyance, particularly if you’re trying to find information in a hurry.  I, like many people run an ad-blocker as an add-on for my internet browser because I don’t like seeing ads popup on my screen when I’m reading a news article.  And in addition to the annoyance, pages with ads down each of the side columns are extra items that your browser must download – therefore they are costing you navigation speed and bandwidth usage.

Most of us understand the reason why websites host ads on their pages – it’s to pay for the service we are accessing.  If I wanted to host my own site which provides videos of Cats being cute for the amusement of both myself and other internet users, I don’t want to be shelling out money each month on hosting fees, domain fees, and database costs just to maintain a hobby.  So, I reach out to Google or other companies and ask them if they’d like to host some ads on my site.  I give them some dedicated pixel space on the page, they give me enough money to cover my costs.  It’s a win-win.

A lot of websites are getting wise to the ad-blocker trick too.  Some of them simply won’t display content while your ad-blocker is running, electing instead to display a message to the theme of “turn off your ad-blocker to see this content”.  Others will simply post a large banner across the page which will restrict your view of the content, but not necessarily prevent you from seeing it, ironically becoming more annoying than just seeing the ads in the first place.

In the end, I appreciate what Three was trying to do – provide a better 3G/4G experience for its customers and allow them to avoid consuming a percentage of their mobile data due to ads, but I don’t think it was a business model that was ever going to work.  Because if the ads pay for the sites, and we remove access to the ads, then the sites have to begin charging visitors for access to the content.  This in turn, would lead to a large scale content war across the internet, with sites competing against other sites to bring the lowest subscription costs possible, for the same content.

Interestingly, you cannot block Facebook’s ads – even with an ad-blocker, because of the way the ad is written into the backend code.  It could also be because the ad is hosted by Facebook on its own domain, so the ad-blocker cannot differentiate between content and advertisement.  Whereas on other pages, it’s fairly easy to detect that a certain HTML frame features content being provided by a third party.

At least once a year, the fake Facebook post comes around saying “As of [future date], Facebook is going to start charging users $5.00 a month to use its service, unless you like a forward this post…” which is simply a shameful way of scaring people into making a post go viral while providing some “click bait”.  Facebook is never going to charge its users a cent, because the ads are what is making Facebook so much money.  More so, because there is an algorithm behind the ads which target individual users based on their search and browsing history.

There was a funny viral story some years ago about a young, unpleasant man who took a screenshot of the ad banner on the right hand side of his Facebook feed, which contained ads about meeting single men in his area.  Outraged, the young man shared the screenshot on Facebook along with some homophobic comments and a rant at Facebook about why they are displaying ads for such dating services to him, when he most certainly isn’t looking for such services. Then, one bright individual pointed out in a comment that these ads are directed at you based on what you tend to look at online.  Needless to say, the man who made the original post closed his Facebook account down shortly afterwards.

So while we can all argue that ads are a necessary evil and the price we pay for free access to on-demand information, the flip side is that not all of these ads are really what they seem.  While one site may feature an ad from Amazon offering large discounts on the newest Justin Bieber album, a less reputable site may have ads for body modification, which when clicked, will lead you to a malicious site which will throw some Malware at your computer.  (Known as ‘Drive-by infection’)

Some ads make false promises to entice unsuspecting web surfers in the hope that they can increase the size of certain body parts, lose weight fast or gain 20lbs of muscle overnight.  Most people laugh at such a ridiculous claim, but to the desperate, anything is worth a click.  And this is how people become extorted by online hackers, have their data stolen and then held to ransom.

Yes, advertisements can be annoying (especially the ones that wait a few seconds and then appear as a pop-up in the center of the page), but unless we all want to look out our credit cards and begin subscribing to hundreds of websites each month, trying to remember usernames and passwords each time we revisit, then we must accept that web advertisements are price we pay for instant access to the largest collection of information that mankind has ever seen.

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