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.