Safari’s content blockers: Good for privacy, bad for publishers

You’ve probably heard that Apple’s new content blocking tools will lead to the slaughter of countless publications, to Tim Cook walking through the desiccated remains of the countless writers who will starve as ad revenues dry up while laughing at all those too foolish to work with Apple News.

All right, so the claims aren’t that hyperbolic. But there is a lot of hand-wringing about how the content blocking tools, which became available with yesterday’s release of iOS 9, pose a threat to small-and medium-sized publishers. How will these companies survive on dwindling ad dollars?

This isn’t a theoretical issue. It’s clear that at least some people are interested in content blockers. One, the Peace app made by Overcast developer Marco Arment, already reached the top of the App Store’s list of paid software. Others (Crystal, Freedom, Blockr) have also become popular.

Some have already pointed out the perceived irony of a developer asking consumers to pay for software that limits the amount of money publishers can make from advertisements. Others have wondered how crowded the App Store might be with these simple, easy-to-develop apps in the coming months. But, for the most part, it all comes back to fretting about publishers. And these developers have varying responses to complaints about how their software might affect small media companies, with it mostly boiling down to content blocking being the only way for people to enjoy browsing the Web.

One of the main draws is being able to visit a website without having to wait for unwanted assets — the ads — to load. Crystal developer Dean Murphy says web pages load 3.9 times quicker with his app enabled than they do when browsing the web with a fresh-off-the-homescreen version of Safari.

Reducing the number of things a site needs to (or can) load also eases some of the concerns about using wireless data. Many people can only use a few gigabytes of data each month, and the fees incurred by going over that limit can be high. An ad-free web isn’t just faster; it can also be cheaper.

There’s another benefit to using these tools: privacy.

Many websites use tools that track people across websites. Sometimes these tools are used to serve advertisements, other times they’re sending information back to Facebook and other social networks. The end result is the same — people are being followed without knowing, let alone consenting.

To get a feel for how often people are tracked, I installed Ghostery, a tool that identifies/blocks trackers and advertisements, and visited some popular news sites. Here’s what I found:

  • Venture Beat — 51 trackers
  • The New York Times — 39 trackers
  • The New Yorker — 37 trackers
  • The Verge — 37 trackers
  • Gigaom — 34 trackers
  • TechCrunch — 28 trackers
  • The Washington Post — 27 trackers
  • The Wall Street Journal — 27 trackers
  • The Awl — 26 trackers
  • The Guardian — 10 trackers

Most of these sites are using the same trackers. There’s Google Analytics and Chartbeat to measure traffic; Typekit to offer nicer typography; and various services devoted to serving advertisements, such as DoubleClick and Quantcast. Other popular options come from social networks like Twitter or Facebook, let people watch embedded videos, and so on.

It’s worth noting that these figures are from desktop sites, and that another content blocking tool, uBlock Origin, gave slightly different counts for the number of trackers. I used Ghostery’s because it provided a detailed breakdown of the trackers it blocks along with what they’re supposed to do. (These figures collected with all ad-blocking turned off; the number of trackers shown when ad-blocking is on vary wildly in both number and scope.)

Which brings me to the funny thing about Ghostery — it’s in the business of telling website owners what trackers are on their sites. As Arment explains in a blog post about Peace:

Third-party ad networks and analytics are so common, and their standards for embedded ads are so unenforceable (since they’re letting third parties execute arbitrary code), that web publishers need someone else — Ghostery — to tell them what’s being served on their own sites and what problems it might be causing for their visitors or potential customers.

How are people supposed to trust websites if many of them don’t know what they’re doing themselves? Forget everything about making web browsing faster or less resource-intensive; I downloaded Peace (and use some combination of ad-blockers on my desktop browsers) to help get some of my privacy back.