The decision by French ISP Free to start blocking ads for its customers by default raises some tricky questions.
PK has argued that ad-blocking is not copyright infringement, and it’s not. People should be free to skip past commercials on recorded TV, and even block annoying online ads, without being afraid of being hauled into court. And it should be legal to provide people with the tools they use to skip ads.
That’s not to say that blocking always blocking ads in all circumstances is always the right thing to do. (Or even possible: you can’t skip ads on live TV. Well, you can mute them or change the channel or leave the room…but without a time machine it’s hard to fast-forward past them.) If you enjoy ad-supported websites you might want to consider not blocking their ads–ads might end up being less annoying than other monetization strategies like hidden product placement or “sponsored posts” or paywalls.
But all of this relates to a user choosing to block or not block ads. It’s another thing entirely when an ISP decides to start blocking content on behalf of its users, whatever that content is, even if some people find it annoying. ISPs have duties that Adblock Plus or DISH do not–in particular, a duty to not play favorites with the traffic they carry to their users. But as reported by Freenews, The Rude Baguette and others, Free has sent a software update to the “Freebox” that its customers use to get online, and this update blocks ads by default. Customers can turn it off–but something that’s on by default, for most users, is on forever. Defaults matter–and here the defaults, set by Free, block ads.
It doesn’t particularly matter, by the way, that the blocking is taking place inside customer-premises equipment rather than “within the network.” The exact blocking mechanism is immaterial. It would be a net neutrality problem if an ISP started degrading an online service at a peering point, elsewhere in the network, or in the customer’s router. It would be a violation if an ISP subject some services to data caps and not others. It might even be a net neutrality violation if an ISP sent some guys to your house to throw eggs at you when you tried to access the service. What matters is the discriminatory effect and not the precise means used.
ISPs should be wary of getting in the content-blocking business. As journalist Guillaume Champeau pointed out on Twitter, once you start blocking one kind of content (ads), people are going to start to ask you to block The Pirate Bay. Or hate speech. Or blasphemy. Or maybe content that “supports terrorism“. (This is a different issue than blocking spam, by the way. Surprising as this is to many Internet-natives, many people still use the email provided by their ISPs. But email is an application and when an ISP, operating as an application provider, blocks spam that’s ok. But when I open up my spam folder in Gmail I don’t want Verizon blocking those messages.)
From this side of the Atlantic Free is an interesting company. It has upset incumbents and offered interesting plans and services packages at good prices. At the same time, French ISPs, including Free, have not always been the best actors when it comes to net neutrality. In fact, ARCEP (the French telecom regulator) is currently investigating Free to determine why Youtube performs so poorly on its network.
Given both Free’s anti-net neutrality policy stance, and its history as a maverick player, its decision to start blocking ads (such as those from Internet heavyweight Google) becomes a bit less surprising. But blocking ads is still blocking content and it’s not something ISPs have any right to do. Not only does Free set a dangerous precedent, it makes a choice that should be within the user’s control.
If Free wants to provide its users with tools they can use to block ads, that’s fine. But any form of content-blocking should be off by default–and Free should to provide its users with the ability to white-list certain sites or ad networks. Blocking ads is a clever way to set the precedent for blocking content generally because it’s something users are less likely to complain about. This is exactly why Internet users worldwide, and Free’s customers, should object to it.