Who wants to be a content blocker?

January 11, 2016

2015 was the year parts of the online media world freaked out over content blockers and the apocalypse their coming to IOS would possibly mean.

Essentially, Apple was building support for automatic ad blocking (and much more, but that is what most people want to do) right into the web browser of all IOS devices, allowing developers to create (and make money off, for crying out loud!) efficient, privacy-ensuring blockers of all kinds. Cue rants about blockers stealing money from advertising-supported sites and all manners of doom and gloom.

Well, IOS 9 landed, some blockers briefly jumped to the top of various lists and then things pretty much continued as normal.

No surprises there, content blockers for desktop browsers have been readily available for ages without changing the world. The interesting part began and - for most people who even followed this, I suspect - ended with Marco Arment's release and subsequent withdrawal of the Peace content blocker. The central point of his motivation was that it just did not feel right to him to become the arbiter of what content people see and do not see.

A surprising (I almost want to write depressing) number of people seemed completely unable to accept this for an explanation, prefering to weave stories of Marco being bought out by people dependent on advertising.

I thought his argument made a lot of sense, and only more so when news appeared that one of the remaining content blockers were accepting money to whitelist various sources of content. This kind of thing has been going on among desktop blockers as well, but the meaning of it did not begin to sink in with me until this point.

It boils down to this: who would you trust to censor your information?

You do not only want the censor to do a great job, you also want their motivations to line up with yours. How should the perfect censor support itself? Marco is an independent developer, and the more I think about it the more I understand his decision. Money from users will always be sparse, and sooner or later one or more "content providers" are sure to show up with very reasonable suggestions regarding how your content blocker and its users could benefit from just some of their specific content being allowed through.

I thought about this as 2015 wound down, and for a while I wondered if the ideal content blocker simply could not exist. Small company or individual? How would they make a living? Large company? What would drive them? What about any ads they themselves (or their business partners) produce?

Fortunately, there is a more optimistic end to this. Mozilla have just released their Focus content blocker and, more importantly, made me realize that they and other open projects actually might make good and viable censors after all.

The whole idea of charging for censorship is perhaps not a great one in any case.