The inevitability of ad-blocking

As I work in the content industry I’ve always felt bad about installing ad-blocking software. I’ve always felt that adverts were part of the deal of having free content.

Recently I have started to use them in some of my browser sessions and the reason is almost purely technical: adverts were wrecking my power consumption and hogging my CPU.

The issue is naturally acute on smartphones, which is why Apple is starting to allow ad-blocking on iOS Safari, but my recent problems have actually been on laptops. I have an aging Chromebook which you might expect to have problems but I have also found that in the last six months my pretty powerful dev laptop has also been going into full-fan power drain mode, often resulting in less than two hours of battery life.

At first I thought the issue was simply that I am a total tab monster, keeping open loads of pages and referring to them while coding or researching things.

However by digging into the developer tools and the OS monitors it became apparent that just a few of my tabs were causing all these problems (swap file paging I still have to put my hands up to) and all of them were running visually innocuous ads that were taking up vast quantities of CPU and memory.

With no way of telling whether any given webpage is going to kill my computer or not, the only sane response is to not take the risk and install an ad-blocker.

Since installing them (I’ve been using uBlock) I have indeed obtained longer battery-life and less memory-crashes on my Chromebook.

While I am still worried about how we can pay for high-quality open web content in a world without ads there is no tenable future for an open web that clients cannot viably run.

In my personal web usage I prefer to pay for the services I use and rely on. For those that I’m uncertain of I’m happy to trial and therefore to be the product rather than the customer.

In these situations though I am really dealing with the web as an app delivery platform. For content production there needs to be something better than the annual fundraising drive.

Frustratingly there is also a place for ads. Without advertising then everything becomes (online) word of mouth. There’s a positive case to be made for awareness-based advertising. I want to do it myself around recruitment as part of my work.

These adverts though are really nothing more than pictures and words. They shouldn’t be things that are taxing the capabilities of your hardware.

Advertisers are bringing this change on themselves. If they can’t find a way to square their needs and those of the people they are trying to reach then there isn’t going to be an online advertising market in nine months time and that might mean some big changes to the way the web works for everyone.

Web Applications, Work

Why don’t online publishers use https?

Why don’t big publishers use https instead of https? The discussion comes up every three to six months at the Guardian and there seems to be no technical barrier to doing this. There has been a lot of talk about where the secure termination happens and how to get certificates onto the CDN but there seem to be good answers to all the good questions. There doesn’t seem to be any major blockers or even major disadvantages in terms of network resources.

So why doesn’t it happen? Well public content publishers are dependent for the most part on advertising and online advertising is a total mess.

Broken and miss-configured advertising is a major source of issues and the worst aspect of the situation is that you really don’t have much control over what is happening. When you call out to the ad server you essentially yield control to whatever the ad server is going to do.

Now your first-level campaigns, the stuff that are in-house, premium or bespoke campaigns are usually designed to run well on the site and issues with this are often easy to fix because you can talk to your in-house advertising operations team.

However in a high-volume site this is a tiny amount of the advertising you run because you tend to have a much larger inventory (capacity to serve ads) in practice than you can sell. That is generally because supply of online advertising massively outstrips demand.

The way the discrepancy is made good is via ad exchanges which are really clever pieces of technology that try to find the best price for available both publisher and ad buyer. Essentially the ad exchanges try to establish a spot price for an available ad slot amongst all the campaigns the buyers have set up.

However you have virtually no say over what the format of the advert the exchange is going to serve up. The bundle of content that makes up the ad is called the “creative” and might be a simple image but more likely is a script or iframe that is going to load the actual advert, run personalisation and tracking systems.

You have no real control as to what the creatives are and they certainly haven’t been written with your site in mind and most probably security is a very minimal concern compared to gathering marketing information on your view.

So if the creative contains any security breaking rule or any resource that is not also https they you get a security exception on the site. The customer then blames you for being insecure.

One of our consumer products, which do all run under https, ran ads and every other month this issue would come up. In the end we decided that the value of the subscription was more than the value of any advertising that was undermining the image of being secure and reliable so we took the advertising off.

And therefore until agencies and ad exchanges change their policies so that ads are only served off https this situation is unlikely to change. Ironically there is no reason for ads to be served off https since they don’t want to be cached and wants to do lots of transactional stuff with the client anyway.

If the online advertising business went secure-only then online publishers would be able to follow them. Until then public pages are likely to remain on http.