Bad news for mobile operators wishing to block ads at the network level: On Tuesday the EU’s Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (Berec), officially said that doing so raises net neutrality issues.
This is bad timing for mobile network Three, which ran an ad blocking trial in June in the U.K. with around 20,000 of its customers. It’s done the same trials in Italy, though it hasn’t revealed the results of either trial. So far it’s the only mobile operator to do so, though other networks like O2 have also reportedly shown interest in the notion.
Three has previously expressed confidence that it would not breach net neutrality regulations being drawn up in Europe, and that its trials have been opt-in. Its partner Shine said it didn’t think the EU block would stand up.
The IAB hasn’t been a fan from the start of mobile operators applying network-level bans. Guy Phillipson, CEO of IAB U.K., welcomed the EU’s ruling as an “important development” and a positive step for the industry. “Network-level ad blocking is by nature a blunt tool which goes against net neutrality guidelines, which state that all internet users should have equal access to content and advertising online,” he said. “However, it’s the consumer’s right to block ads if they wish, for example by independently downloading software.”
Here are four things to know about the latest development:
Data-hogging on mobile is a problem
Slow page-load speed is regarded as one of the main reasons people block ads. On mobile, it’s exacerbated because heavy ads are such data hogs. An Enders report in March cited that 80 percent of the average person’s mobile data allowance was used up by ads on news sites.
Three said it believes advertisers, not consumers, should absorb the data charges associated with downloading ads; and people should not have to tolerate unwanted, excessive, intrusive or irrelevant ads.
Mobile operators don’t want to be dumb pipes
Mobile operators have long feared that the rise of over-the-top services like WhatsApp that piggyback off mobile operator networks to deliver services would lead to telcos being reduced to dumb pipes. This move also plays into that.
Eleni Marouli, principal analyst of advertising at IHS Screen Digest, said one reason operators might want to block ads is to maintain a gatekeeper role with customers that they can leverage with advertisers. “They may say to companies that they have this customer data they can use to advertise, rather than go through Facebook and Google, which take half your money in revenue share when you advertise on their platforms,” she said.
The EU’s decision is good news for publishers
Three has nine million U.K. customers, so the prospect of it blocking or controlling ads on its network has alarmed publishers. John Barnes, Association of Online Publishers director and chief digital officer at Incisive Media, said that publishers must bear their share of the blame for the rise in ad blocking. But the problem is, network-level blocking treats good actors the same as bad ones. “Ad blockers don’t indiscriminate, so those publishers that are trying to be more responsible are losing out, and if this were to happen at a mobile network level it would cause us massive issues,” he said.
Network-level bans don’t solve the education problem
Consultant Troy Norcross has outlined 10 reasons why network-level bans couldn’t come into fruition. One point was that consumers will just be confused once they reconnect to wi-fi and receive a flood of ads.
Three’s approach also doesn’t address the need to educate people about the role of ads, added Barnes. Mobile operators and publishers could give users a choice when they go to a mobile site by sending them a message informing them that the site collects a lot of data, and asking them if they wish to continue or not. “It’s the equivalent of downloading music illegally. People must realize there needs to be a fair transaction for accessing good content.”