U.K. Carrier EE Looking At Giving Users Control Over Mobile Ads

The momentum against increasingly intrusive ad tech is continuing to gain strength, with major U.K. carrier EE stepping into the debate with an announcement that it’s launching a strategic review on whether to offer its users the ability to control the advertising they see on their mobile devices.

“We think it’s important that, over time, customers start to be offered more choice and control over the level and intensity of ads on mobile. For EE, this is not about ad blocking, but about starting an important debate around customer choice, controls and the level of ads customers receive,” EE CEO Olaf Swantee told the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, plumping for the anodyne phrase ‘customer choice’, rather than the more charged term ‘ad blocking’.

“This is an important debate that needs to happen soon. That’s why we’ve kicked off a strategic review internally to start considering our plans,” he added.

According to the paper, the review will consider options for creating tools for users that would allow them to block some forms of advertising on the mobile web and potentially within apps, including banners, pop-ups and auto-playing videos. A user volume control for advertising is another measure being considered.

While EE has no firm plans as yet, the fact it’s considering offering ad controls is very much a sign of the times. Apple of course added support for content blocking in the latest version of its mobile OS, iOS 9 — which has quickly led to a cottage industry of content-blocking (and ad blocking) apps arriving on the App Store. (And, most recently, moves by media companies to fight such apps.)

Cupertino flicking the content blocking switch is set against a backdrop of increased uptake of ad blocking software in recent years, and growing awareness of privacy issues since the 2013 Snowden revelations — which revealed the extent of government mass surveillance programs and how they systematically harvest data from commercial tech companies.

Talking to TechCrunch this summer, ad block software maker, Adblock Plus, noted it’s seen a steady download clip since 2013 — with an average of 2.3M downloads per week, and some 50M to 60M active users as of July.

The third strand is the one directly referenced by Swantee: growing user irritation at increasingly intrusive ads on mobile devices — exacerbated by the added annoyance of mobile data being consumed by adverts a user may not even want to see, and slower page load times thanks to sites larded with ad tracking tech.

The carrier chief stressed EE is not looking at a blanket block on all advertising, but rather is considering providing users with some ad-related options.

“Advertising, when done well, can be a valued part of the experience. Not all ads are bad. When a business gets it right, it’s appreciated and sparks a connection. But when it’s intrusive or crass it can drive people crazy,” he told the newspaper.

On the carrier side, blocking or controlling ads at the network level could be one way for operators to gain a strategic foothold over the Internet companies they have long complained are turning their businesses into dumb pipes by offering services that often circumvent their revenue streams.

It’s unclear whether EE’s strategic review on offering ad controls has been encouraged by European politicians agreeing net neutrality rules for the region last month. Rules which include an exception for Internet fast lanes offering so-called “specialized services”. Following the net neutrality vote, German carrier DT suggested it would be launching a service to charge startups for “guaranteed good transmission quality”, for instance.

Internet giants like Google may be able to pay for fast enough infrastructure to power their services despite any such “specialized” carrier fast-lanes, but they are dependent on advertising revenues so reliant on their ads being displayed in the first place — so any carrier moves to restrict or block ads on mobile could pose a strategic threat to theses business models. Especially if such moves prove popular with users.

And while EE is only one of four major carriers in the U.K. market, a popular move by one operator would likely soon be adopted by others.

Google already pays AdBlock Plus an undisclosed amount to whitelist ads to circumvent its blocking software. Carriers may well be eyeing a similar deal to claw back some of the ‘value’ being generated by the mobile data packets they shuttle around their networks.

In terms of the size of the pie here, figures from research firm eMarketer last year noted that global mobile ad revenues surged 105% in 2013, bringing in nearly $18 billion in sales. That’s since leapt up significantly, with eMarketer forecasting the U.S. market alone will generate $30.45 billion in mobile ad spending this year.