Last week brought iOS 9, and with it the long-awaited support for ad blockers in Safari.

I am not really comfortable with the idea of blocking ads; while it was more or less a requirement to block the worst excesses a decade or so ago if you wanted any sort of usable web experience, on the desktop at least that is no longer the case. It's an open question how much of this is due to adtech providers giving up on their most obnoxious tricks, how much to features like popup-blocking being built in to all major browsers, and how much to ad blocking on the wetware - simply ignoring most of the ads that are served to me.

It's another story on mobile.

Part of the problem is the ad networks themselves. Print publications generally carry significant amounts of advertising, but because it's controlled by the publisher, the ads that make it into the magazines are typically relevant to readers and in line with the rest of the content. For an example of a magazine that gets this right, pick up a copy of Monocle. The ads are for the same sorts of brands that also come up in the editorial content, they are tasteful and well presented, and generally in line with the high production values of the rest of the magazine. The same goes for their advertorials - sorry, branded content: relevant, unforced, clearly signalled, and often actually interesting in their own right - at least if you're a Monocle reader.

Now name the last time you had an experience like that on the web.

You can't - because hardly any web sites choose their own ads. They all sign up with one or several of the big ad networks, and they will serve you whatever they feel is relevant - to their customers, regardless of what you are reading or watching at the time. This disconnect can lead to idiotic consequences, with the same products stalking you around the web even once you've already bought them, or even been prevented from buying them!

So how do we get out of this situation? Micropayments for content do not look like a practical solution, so what can be done to avoid either beggaring online outlets or giving up on protecting our eyeballs and cellphone bills from the worst excesses of advertisers?

If ad networks are the villains - can they also be our saviours? What if they started policing their own ads better, enforcing "polite" ads? At a minimum:

  • No auto playing audio or video

  • No movement or resizing

  • No pop ups

  • No redirects (I see this on mobile, presumably as a side effect of evading pop up blockers on desktop)

  • No faking UI elements (pretending to be an OS message)

  • No excessive size, measured as a percentage of the actual content

I would have no problem whitelisting that network. In fact, if they made a blocker that only allowed through ads that respected such a code of conduct? I'd install that blocker!

Pity it'll never happen. Instead, we will get some sort of buggy-whip-maker protection rule, and we'll just keep muddling along.

Image by Pablo GarciaSaldaña via Unsplash