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10 reasons why Three's ad blocking trial is not a big deal

Three today lifted the lid on its network-level ad blocking plans by announcing that it will block ads for a day during a trial next month. What the network is styling as a blessing for consumers looks like a nightmare for publishers, but here Troy Norcross explains why we shouldn't panic just yet.

1. It will likely break a whole bunch of things they don't expect.

Turning on network level AdBlocking has the potential for a much greater impact than expected. True, Digicel has already been running this so it has some initial data as to what to watch out for, but when you do network level ad blocking in the UK a whole new level of impact will be possible. Hence a reason why Three is only doing it for a single day and only for a small subset of their consumers.

2. Consumers will think they are opting In to ad blocking. They are not. 

Depending on how Three writes the promotional language most consumers will think that they are signing up for ad blocking. But that's not what Three is offering. What it is offering is a new mobile data subscription where they don't have to pay for mobile data related to ad traffic. When the ads come back there will be plenty of calls to customer care.

3. Consumers will be confused when the ads come back.

There are two situations where the advertising will return: 1) When a publisher decides that they have to pay Three then the ads will come back. 2) When the consumer connects to Wi-Fi instead of the Three network (there is no network filter when Wi-Fi is used to connect to the internet). Again, consumers who are confused as to why they suddenly see ads again will complain to customer care.

4. Publishers can block access to their services when they originate from a Three network IP address. 

Yes – a rather extreme option, but it's better than agreeing to pay Three for the privilege of serving ads. It's not a hard thing to do either. If the source is from a Three IP address then you simply show a page that says: "This content is unavaialble on the Three network. Please connect via Wi-Fi or change to Vodafone." Of course they can also offer subscription options.

5. App updates can implement 'phone-home' signals and if coming from Three network they can be set to stop working. 

That's right. No more FREE ad-funded games if the ad servers can't be reached. Current ad blocking only affects mobile browsing in Safari on iOS and only when using special browsers on Android. The Three solution could impact both apps and browsing in all browsers. Apps could also implement a pay to play option if connected to the Three network.

6. The solution will have no impact on sites using HTTPS for traffic – unless Three implements its own man-in-the-middle hack (unlikely). 

Other than brute force IP filtering the proposed solution won't be able to perform deep packet inspection on HTTPS encrypted traffic to determine if the traffic is ad related.

7. By the end of 2017 net neutrality rules will apply in the EU and mobile network operators will not be allowed to distinguish between different types of traffic. 

As much as they don't want to admit it, mobile network operators are just 'pipes'; they are conduits for mobile data just like an ISP. Filtering out ad traffic for special treatment is in violation of net neutrality laws.

8. To turn on network level ad blocking the consumer has to opt in.

This will limit adoption and make the process of changing their minds easier. Three has actually done something pretty sensible on this one. Rather than making it opt out, it is asking consumers to actively opt in to the service. This will restrict the volume of traffic that has to go through its network filter and also gives consumers an easy way to turn the service off when they realise that it's going to result in a degraded experience on their mobile phones.

9. Three's secondary objective is to get new customers – but will it?

Three is getting a huge amount of PR value from this little exercise. And it might actually get some customers. This is a primary driver as to why EE is looking into the same thing. If Three starts stealing EE customers then it needs to have a response ready to prevent losing customers.

10) People aren't as easily fooled as Three wants to think.

Three states that it is acting on behalf of its consumers by protecting them from abusive mobile data and privacy risks. The fact is that it is doing this to generate new revenue from publishers and to attempt to get new consumers to come to the Three network. And if the publishers pay, the ads will come back and the consumer will be no better off. 

Three will try its new network level ad blocking here in the UK and reports are that it may also try the service in Italy. It's only for a day. It's only for a few users who get the marketing message and opt in. It's mainly a PR exercise and a small network impact test. 

Good publishers will hold their ground and continue their work in improving the user experience and restoring trust with their audience. They will improve page load speeds and offer consumers fewer ads that are more valuable. They will offer brands a higher quality audience with fewer ad spaces that are more appropriately valued. This change is already underway. Network level ad blocking does nothing but cause an unnecessary stir (and generate a bunch of new PR).

Troy Norcross is principal, digital strategy and innovation, at SER Associates

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