Fight Over French ISP Blocking Ads Really Just A New Perspective On Net Neutrality Debate

from the internet-wars dept

At the beginning of the year, some folks in France, who used the popular ISP Free (whose name is a bit misleading, as it is not, in fact, free), discovered that the company had started providing a service in which it blocked all internet banner ads. There was no whitelist. It was either all or nothing (and if you went “all,” you were trusting that it wouldn’t over-filter). This quickly raised an awful lot of questions — with the biggest among them being “can they do that?” According to the French Digital Economy minister, the answer apparently is no. Free was quickly told to turn off its ad blocking software.

The French minister said: “No actor can jeopardise the digital ecosystem in a unilateral way.”

Of course, the reason for doing this was not to make their subscribers happier but rather to attempt to force Google to pay them more money for carrying their traffic. It was related to the story we just had about France Telecom degrading YouTube performance. Both were examples of these French companies effectively seeking to break basic end-to-end principles of the internet, in an effort to get Google to pay more, since Google is so popular. As we’ve noted, some European telcos have been desperately trying to make the argument that successful internet companies should pay them more money to carry their traffic.

The whole thing leaves me conflicted. Obviously, some will argue that I’m biased, since a significant part of our revenue comes from banner ads on this site. However, as I’ve made clear in the past, I have no problem with users who choose to make use of ad blocking software themselves, such as AdBlock, if they feel that ads on a site are too annoying. Many sites get upset at users who do this, or even try to punish them. We do not and would not do such a thing. We consider it an incentive to try to figure out ways to make money that don’t annoy our readers.

However, what Free is doing is different than that. Not only does it not really have anything to do with creating a benefit for the user, the fact that it’s universal with no control is quite worrisome. Furthermore, while some consumers will (obviously) argue that removing all ads is a major benefit, they might want to be careful in thinking about the slippery slope they’re stepping on when it comes to “net neutrality” issues. If an ISP is able to simply block all advertising, unless it gets paid directly from the ad platform, what’s to stop it from blocking other content (like all YouTube videos, all Netflix movies, all Spotify plays, all Skype calls, etc…) unless those companies pay to reach the ISP’s subscribers as well.

In some ways it’s a clever play by Free, who likely hoped consumers would support this move, without recognizing they were really supporting the same tool being applied across other content that they actually want.

Of course, given all that, I’m still a bit conflicted, since it’s uncomfortable to then see a government official step in unilaterally, and tell an ISP what they can and cannot do. This is, obviously, the net neutrality debate in a nut shell but pushed into an alternate perspective, thanks to the fact that it’s about advertising, rather than content subscribers really want. In the end, I find it problematic that the ISP is doing this unilaterally — whereby it seems like it really should be the end user’s choice to set their own rules for how their internet connection works, not the ISP in the middle.

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Companies: france telecom, free, google, youtube

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Comments on “Fight Over French ISP Blocking Ads Really Just A New Perspective On Net Neutrality Debate”

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Ninja (profile) says:

I block every single ad in TechDirt. I tried to let some in but at my work they’d trigger filters and mess up the page and at home, well, they are generally annoying (too colorful, big etc). But I still want to support TD so I bought one of their digital packages. But that’s not the main point.

ISPs should NOT interfere with your navigation other than completely cutting your connection if you don’t pay. Unless you specifically agree with it (ie: you agree to have your pipe reduced during peak times in order to pay less but regardless it’s going to deliver the full capacity your chosen pipe can handle regardless of service type accessed. Because you paid for it).

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: ISP's should clearly pay websites

I’m not sure if this is sarcastic or not, but I’m going to assume it is. 🙂

However, this:

the reason people subscribe to ISPs is to access websites

is not universally true. If the web were to vanish completely, I’d still subscribe to an ISP because the internet is a whole lot more than just the web.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: ISP's should clearly pay websites

That does mean the difference isn’t important or that people wouldn’t use the internet if the web didn’t exist. If the web disappear tomorrow, people would go back to Usenet and gopher (either of witch are nearly as good as the web, but are better then nothing) and probably file share on places such bittorrent trackers and Gnutella a lot more, as well.

crade (profile) says:

They should be allowed to run their own business. If it’s true what you say, that it doesn’t benefit their customers, it’s a moot point since it’s an opt-in service, and customers won’t opt in if they don’t see the benefit.

If they block other things, make it not opt out, yadayada whatever hypothetical here and customers don’t like it, thats why we have competition.

This has everything to do with the government dictating business decisions for Free.

It is definately wrong, in my opinion to dissalow them from providing service their customers want merely because people who aren’t their customers don’t like it. Where’s the justification? Certainly not because “their customers *might* not actually like it”, thats what competition is for.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They should be allowed to run their own business.

Whenever I see that statement, it is automatically a red flag.

I read it to mean that business should be allowed to abuse people any which way they want with impunity.

My instinctive reaction to this statement is based on experience seeing that it is typically only raised when business is complaining about being caught engaging in some kind of abuse. “I should be allowed to dump toxic sludge into the drinking water as much as I want — IT’S MY BUSINESS!”

If it’s true what you say, that it doesn’t benefit their customers,
it’s a moot point since it’s an opt-in service, and customers
won’t opt in if they don’t see the benefit.

This further confirmed my initial fears.

In the 21st century, the internet is increasingly a necessity, just as the telephone was in the 20th century. That’s why the telephone became heavily regulated to prevent abuse and insure everyone had at least basic access.

So it’s opt-in in the same sense as your electric utility or your water utility is opt-in.

Furthermore, if there is little or no competition, then it really needs to be closely regulated to ensure these kinds of abuses don’t happen “for the good of the customer”.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Actually, I’d say there being little or no competition is not neccessarily a problem, as in that case abuse would bring competition forth to meet the need.

It’s when it’s not possible or prohibitively difficult for there to be competition when you have a problem. If this can be fixed by regulatory change I’d say thats the solution.. If it can’t, then you might have to go the essential service route. You can’t claim to be promoting competition in this area with one hand and arbitrarily deciding the parameters of the services they are allowed to provide with the other.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

Adapt or die. When competition alone is not enough.

Here is the thing, competition alone is not always enough to maintain a healthy environment, so some legislation may be necessary.

What are the objectives?
What are the incentives?
What is the past history of the players?

If ISP’s can do anything they want, would they not try to block competitors?
Think emails, VoIP, video, audio or anything else that could possibly be charged, this could end up with a series of contracts and obligations as complex as the patent mess or copyrights.

Peering obviously doesn’t work here most web players are small, very small and wouldn’t be able to afford the fee’s, ISP’s and other services would see this as open season to block anything and everything they could.

How hard it is to change ISP’s?

This is important because the harder it is the more they can abuse that.

Things are not black and white, this is more like cooking, you just don’t put all the ingredients all at once and expect to be ready, you follow steps and timing.

All free without regulation means also free reign to abuse any advantage points you could find there are things that competition alone won’t change like all the participants trying to charge for anything they can get away with it and since they will not be charging people directly most people may not care or care but not enough to change, or not even be able to change even if they wanted it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

Actually, I’d say there being little or no competition is not neccessarily a problem, as in that case abuse would bring competition forth to meet the need.

Except that there are tons of examples where this doesn’t happen at all for various reasons. Internet service many areas of the US being one of them.

And further, competition alone isn’t enough to resolve many abusive situations. Often, we just end up with a situation where all competitors agree to engage in the same abusive practices, so changing companies doesn’t get rid of the problem. Cell phones in the US are a great (but far from the only) example of this.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

This is all beside the point / strawman.
I never claimed that we should get rid of all the normal regulations that try to create a decent business environment for all and prohibit all that bad stuff you mention.

Maybe it’s only me, but I see a big different between general regulations trying to ensure a fair playing field and targetting a company after the fact when a particular players attempts something innovative with the goal, not of creating a fair playing field or preventing abuse of the customers, but of controlling the service that that company deals in.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:9 Re:

hyperbole. What I meant with this statement was to respond to the ideo given that being closely regulated ensures that abuses don’t happen. In my statement, “closely regulated” basically is meant as a regulation that takes the decision that decides whether or not abuse takes place from the private company and moves it to the gov’t. “just means your abuses come from the gov’t” is meant to say that the potential for abuse is moved in this case from the private corporation to the gov’t, rather than to say there is a guarantee of abuse in either case.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

On this point, I agree. It appears to me that ISP Free should be allowed to do what they’re doing, provided that they are clearly communicating their actions and that there are alternatives to using them.

I wouldn’t touch their service with a ten foot pole, but so long as I had other options and they aren’t deceiving people, I don’t care what they do.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Being closely regulated just means your abuses come from the
government unilateraly, leaving people no choice but to take them.

Again, that hasn’t been my experience.

For example, over the last three decades, despite AT&T, for example, being regulated, the only abuse I’ve seen is in AT&T finding or attempting to find ever more creative ways to skirt around regulation and abuse customers anyway.

Raise your hand if you think AT&T would be less abusive without any regulation?

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It is definately wrong, in my opinion to dissalow them from providing
service their customers want merely because people who aren’t
their customers don’t like it. Where’s the justification? Certainly
not because “their customers might not actually like it”, thats
what competition is for.

Let me turn this one around, put the shoe on the other foot so to speak and see how it fits.

Google should say Fine. You want to cut off ads, then you should pay us for access to any Google property, not the other way around.

Now, I’ll repeat what you wrote:

It is definately wrong, in my opinion to dissalow Google from providing
service Google’s customers want merely because people who aren’t
Google’s customers don’t like it.
(Google’s customers like Google getting paid, Free’s customers don’t like it because it raises their rates.)

So if Google were to unilaterally put pressure on Free, then would that be equally okay?

If so, then I suppose Google should be able to use their muscle against every other ISP as well. I’m sure none of us would like how that would work out in the end.

Maybe some regulation is needed to make sure everyone behaves?

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“So if Google were to unilaterally put pressure on Free, then would that be equally okay?”

Depends on the circumstances, as long as they stay within anti-competition stuff, sure.. If google were to, for instance, say “free is blocking our add traffic, so we have rigged our site so it won’t run on people using that ISP”

I think that would be a perfectly valid response..

“Maybe some regulation is needed to make sure everyone behaves?”
Well, of we do have regulation to make sure businesses operate more or less ethically. I’m still not sure we need more specific government control on what features I.S.P.s are allowed to provide to their customers… I mean, China’s got that too.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Google is a natural monopoly within a low bar to entrance meaning they do have serious competition and cannot indulge in abusing that monopoly.

Free on the other hand doesn’t have a monopoly but the bar to enter that market is much more higher, meaning it actually is harder to move from Free to other competitors not impossible just harder than it is with Google and so they can do more harm than Google could to the public, Google on the other hand could cause great pain to companies if they so chose to do so.

Regulation will always be needed, for guidance or other reasons, but what people want are “sane” regulations.

ISP’s deciding to block what they don’t want is not going to end well for anyone, if one can do it others will follow, competition is not enough to stop that behavior because they have high incentives to not be open.


Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’m still not sure we need more specific government control on what features I.S.P.s are allowed to provide to their customers… I mean, China’s got that too.

Network services are sold as a communications utility and companies gain legal protections based on that fact.

So anything that an ISP does beyond being a common carrier should be forbidden. That includes snooping and altering traffic.

This ad blocking is wrong but it doesn’t have anything to do with business models. They are screwing around with the data that people have requested. They are vandalizing everyone’s mail.

ISPs aren’t subject to market forces. So they shouldn’t be treated as if they exist in some sort of libertarian fantasy.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

What a strange response… The customers request the ads to be blocked, so they are definately not messing with requested data there. It’s just a form of me asking my phone company to block stalkers, telemarketers, whatever from calling me.

Why would you say they aren’t subject to market forces? Thats pretty ridiculous.. Obviously they are, at least to some extent. It could be more limited than other businesses, I suppose. But the simple fact that I have switched my ISP because I didn’t like it pretty much shows they are subject to market forces to some extent.

Anyway, I’m not libertarian, I just see a big red flag with this particular call.. To me it intended as a “protect the buggy whip vendors” call vs. a “set up a productive environment for progress” call.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I mean, seriously, they are just picking on these guys. If they prevent “ISPs” from offering ad. blocking, whats to prevent another company from offering ad. blocking and just sitting between the ISP and the user? Thats was browsers do anyway. Someone could set up a service to do the filtering rather doing it at the client end.. Whats the difference? Should they prevent anyone from offering ad blocking services? Just ISPs? Just this ISP? People WANT ad blocking services!

Michael (profile) says:


If the users can turn on or off some kind of banner ad blocking at their ISP level, I say let them have it. You can put AdBlock on your browser. If some innovative ISP wants to help you apply that over all of your devices – great.

If the ISP wants to block content without their subscribers asking them to block it, or wants to have companies for the ISP to create a hole in that blockade, that’s a big problem. Of course, if there was some actual competition, this type of thing would probably be resolved by market forces.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“will their customers like it in the long run or abandon them in droves”

You seem to be making an assumption that their customers have an alternative provider to turn to. Is that the case, or are they leveraging a monopoly?

Ideally, your statement would be great. However, if my ISP (Comcast) decides they want to block something that I want, my options are: Comcast, a DSL line with 10% of the bandwidth, or hmm…nope, that’s it.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Of course regulations should promote competition in this and all areas.

It’s either that or we do treat it like a public service and put it under gov’t control, and we’d just have to trust the gov’t to handle it properly. I’d be ok with that too but if thats the case they should actually do it. You can’t have it both ways.

Keith says:

Re: Re: Re:

I live in France. Contrary to what I’ve understood about the state of ISP’s in the US, there really is customer choice here. There are 4 major ISPs (Bouygues, Orange, SFR-part of Vodaphone, and Free) and a bunch of minor ones. All the major ISPs cover the whole country except for some tiny bits of the far flung countryside.
It’s easy to change ISP, there are laws about it that are actually applied. I’ve changed twice in the last 4 years.

About Orange crippling connexion speed to Youtube : Free have done the same thing to almost all video hosting sites, including the major TV station’s online offerings, between 6pm and 10pm. They say that it is to allow a “fairer” distribution of available bandwidth for people using the net for other things than video.

On a slightly different but related topic for comparison with the US and UK : From most major ISP’s 30?/month gets you uncapped ADSL service at 20 Mb download and 1Mb upload, free phonecalls to most international landlines and a set top box with some 25 freeview TV stations.

I’m not sure that this move by Free is entirely to put pressure on Google. Free must have known that there would be a backlash. They probably did it for the press.
They started a mobile phone pricing revolution last year offering unlimited calls for 20?/month and a 2hours/month for 2 euros. The other operators have all had to follow with large price cuts.

Whether you lie what they are doing or not, they are an interesting company to watch.

trish says:

Why the heck shouldn’t the government get involved? This is not about ‘business decisions’, the ISP “internet service provider” should have no control over the content that the user accesses, except if the user is accessing the company’s own website. The ISP should provide access to the Internet, that is all. This seems such a no-brainer to me and yet some people will argue that this is the business of the company; why, did they build the Internet? No, they built the pipelines to get to it. They should control this one thing: how much to charge consumers to access that pipeline. I may not have any arguments other than ‘duh’ but this is no better than the commenter above whose argument is ‘this is messing with the company;s business model’. As you can tell, this is no argument at all, as I can very well counter-argue with a ‘no, it’s not’. It makes no sense to think of it as such; the Internet doesn’t belong to the ISP, only the pipeline does.
Does my water company control the temperature of my water when it comes out of the pipe? Does my electric company decide how much to heat my home? No, I do, and it would be dumb to argue that disallowing the companies that control would be ‘dictating business methods’ or whatever. I am paying them for the electricity/water/bandwidth I am using. What I do with it is none of THEIR business.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re:

water and electricity are of course completely different being designated as essential public services they are controlled by the government, and the govt does make many of the decisions in those cases since their goals are not to grow the business or maximize profit but to provide a public service under specific terms. Internet access hasn’t been designated as an essential public service and put under gov’t control, but if it was that would definately change the game.

DannyB (profile) says:

The fundamental ISP principle

The fundamental principle of an ISP is that they should be a dumb pipe.

Nothing more.

They route packets to and from where they are supposed to go.

That’s all.

I think it’s necessary that they can control congestion, only when there is actual congestion, and only be limiting traffic on the heaviest users.

If they have to exercise this congestion control on more than a fraction of their customers, then it is obvious that they need to build out their network and stop limiting customers paid traffic.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: The fundamental ISP principle

If ISPs want to be content providers instead of dumb pipes then they should not be ISPs.

They can’t be both the King and the Pope, so to speak.

They should be allowed to be both unless there is effective competition for each.

The potential abuse and conflict of interest is that the ISP will then favor access to its own content, and disfavor access to the rest of the world, or to specific competing content.

NoahVail (profile) says:

Ad Blocking = User Safety

I appreciate Mike’s compassionate position on user ad blocking. I wanted to add that ads don’t just add nuisance to a site, they’re also a threat vector to the user.

Malware delivery happens in waves. One type delivers malicious payloads to users via infected ad servers. I block ads to reduce the risk of infection.

This applies to my customers as well. Every network I service has a local proxy server; it’s primary purpose is to strip ad-laden content before it can load in a users browser. This reduces infection rates everywhere it’s deployed, sometimes to zero.

With respect to the advertising industry:
Your cries that adblocking is selfish would have more credibility – if your industry were equally vocal about the real-world damages consumers suffer from the crap served to us by your industry.

Dazza (profile) says:

Personal choice.

I don’t see a problem with the ISP blocking ads, providing it is an opt-in system. The isp should also offer links to existing services that some users may not know of, for example link to adblock or similar so end users can install and run.
I personally think advertising has become too intrusive. Its not just the product they sell, but the tracking, and monitoring that is also embedded.
Now advertising has near wrecked the mobile systems (IOS and Android) it is now hitting the desktops (Windows 8, OSX)
Advertising itself is becoming a privacy and rights concern.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Personal choice.

For me, it depends on how the opt-in works.

I don’t want my ISP examining the payload data that I’m sending or receiving over their pipe. At all. Period. For any reason. If you haven’t opted in, does that mean they aren’t spying on your web browsing at all, or does it mean they’re still snooping but they just won’t block anything? If it’s the latter, then it’s worthless.

Anonymous Coward says:

I long ago had enough of the ads and commercials everywhere you go. I run adblocker as well as a host file. It’s proven it’s worth over time in the malware I haven’t received that others who did not run such had to deal with.

There was one time, a website called ARSTechina decided you were stealing their income by running adblockers. At that time you were not welcome if you ran ad blocking software. After years of being on their site I said so long and have never returned. That didn’t last too long when they got the results of viewership they were losing. Suddenly if you ran ad blocking software it was again ok. But the idea that you were not welcome because of that ‘thievery of income’ stuck with me and is the main reason I’ve never gone back again. They got their wish.

I’ve stated it before and will do so again. If a company has to beat their own drum to tell you of their product, then there is something wrong with the product. The price increases on that product to pay for advertising and it’s a hidden cost in the total price. That increase in cost does nothing to make the product better, it just raises the cost. My purchases are looked at with who bothered me with commercials. If they did, I won’t buy it.

I don’t need ads in my life. If I want something, I know how to search for it or find what I seek. If I am not interested then all the commercials are nothing but time wasters…my time.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

At that time you were not welcome if you ran ad blocking software. After years of being on their site I said so long and have never returned.

Yes, me too. The level of hostility in their statement about this made it very clear that they actively didn’t want me as a reader, so I moved on. Like you, it doesn’t matter if they’ve backpedalled now. I know how they really feel.

I block the ads here at TD, but I pay cash money to the site. TD obviously respects its readers (their stance on ad blockers in one indication of that) and respect deserves to be returned.

Had Ars operated similarly, I might be kicking them a few bucks every month as well.

Zos (profile) says:

you know….i recently had to set up my mothers new computer, and in the course of it got a look at what the web looks like without adblocker running.

most pages are a fucking mess. I couldn’t believe how different, and fugly my favorite pages were. I mean…i understand, advertising helps pay for the sites i love, but it’s just not worth it. If you’re worth supporting, i buy schwag, and i link to you to send you more traffic, but running without adblock? not bloody likely. especially given how often i hear about someone getting infected from a jacked ad on an otherwise safe page.

Di Boddly says:

There are two issues from the user’s perspective – data allowances and usability. Ads – particularly animated ads – wreck both. Not every account has “all you can eat” data (especially 3G) – and adblocking can easily double your effective allowalke usage over the month. Video, and other animations also make pages unreadable for many people.

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