Shine Signs First European Carriers To Its Network-Level Ad Blocking Tech

The ad-blocking wars are stepping up a gear today as mobile network-level ad blocker startup Shine has announced it’s signed its first European carriers to roll out its tech.

Three UK and Three Italy are implementing Shine’s technology, the companies said today, paving the way for other brands in the Three Group to follow. It’s not clear when exactly either carrier will launch a consumer ad block service — we’ve asked and will update this story with any response.

In a statement on the Shine implementation, Three UK’s CMO Tom Malleschitz said: “Irrelevant and excessive mobile ads annoy customers and affect their overall network experience. We don’t believe customers should have to pay for data usage driven by mobile ads. The industry has to work together to give customers mobile ads they want and benefit from. These goals will give customers choice and significantly improve their ad experience.”

Shine’s CMO Roi Carthy tells TechCrunch it is now talking to “over 60 carriers around the world including others in Europe and in the U.S.” — expressing confidence it will have more carrier rollouts to announce in the next six months. (For the record Carthy used to be a TC contributor.)

We expect to finish 2016 with hundreds of millions of consumers either opting in or having the opportunity to opt in.

“We expect to finish 2016 with hundreds of millions of consumers either opting in or having the opportunity to opt in to Shine,” he adds. (For the record, Three UK, the smallest of the UK’s mobile network operators, had 8.8 million customers as of August last year.)

Details on how exactly the Three implementation will work are thin on the ground at this point, although the carrier says its three “principal goals” for deploying Shine are: eliminating data charges for ads for its customers; protecting customer privacy and security; and swatting “excessive, intrusive, unwanted or irrelevant adverts”, arguing that “customers should be entitled to receive advertising that is relevant and interesting to them, and not to have their data experience in mobile degraded”.

It is also saying its objective is not to eliminate mobile advertising entirely, but rather “to give customers more control, choice and greater transparency over what they receive”.

This is in line with nascent ad blocking steps being made by other UK carriers. Last November, for instance, EE said it was conducting a strategic review of ad blocking. Another UK carrier O2 also said it was actively testing ad blocking tech last fall. Both said they weren’t looking to eradicate ads but to offer their users more control.

However the current proposition from Shine — which claims to be the only company offering network-level mobile ad blocking right now (other options for mobile users include using a specific ad blocking browser, for example) — does not include any whitelists for so-called ‘acceptable ads’ (as the popular desktop era ad blocker AdBlock Plus does), so it’s difficult to see how its carrier partners will initially be doing much more than offering customers the ability to see fewer ads.

At this point Shine is concentrating its efforts on blocking display ads. Carthy says this boils down to quashing basic banners, pop-ups, pop unders; aka third party ad content that actively interrupts the mobile browsing experience and, for example, requires users to click a tiny cross to dismiss it.

“Display advertising is the stuff that everybody sees and hates and is usually not a lot of fun,” he argues.

However native advertising, in all its snake-oiled forms, currently gets a pass from Shine. “There’s a couple of forms of native advertising. There’s native content — like dating tips sponsored by Durex — clearly that’s not something we’re going to be able to touch because it’s ‘content’. But that’s an issue between the publisher and the readership whether it’s clearly stated etc etc. That’s their own business,” notes Carthy.

“The second type is the native product experience — Facebook, Twitter… this sort of thing… There we don’t touch the ads for two reasons. Number one the carriers haven’t actually asked us to rule that type of advertising. Although they may still not be happy with it being there and impacting the user experience in a negative way, they see more of a holistic product experience and have not asked us to touch it.

“Secondly we won’t remove advertising where we are not confident that we can’t provide a proper user experience after we’ve removed the ad. That is, we’re not going to give a broken experience instead of an abusive experience.”

Unlike Shine’s first carrier partner, Caribbean mobile operator Digicel, which announced it was deploying the tech last September, European carriers such as Three will be taking an opt in approach to implementing network-level ad blocking for customers. This is down to regional regulatory differences, according to Carthy. So European users will have to choose to switch on ad-blocking. Whereas Digicel customers were all automatically opted in. (Carthy says Shine has 14 million users on Digicel — aka the carrier’s entire customer base. Not one Digicel users has opted out of ad blocking, he claims.)

Shine does not charge carriers for its technology — it’s carrying the cost of the hardware and operating the service itself. Indeed, the company has no explicit business model in place at this point, although it does have investors — it’s raised $3.3 million to date so far — so will need to monetize at some point.

A point which Carthy concedes in our interview. So it sounds as if the future business model for Shine will inevitably involve offering users some form of opt in to ‘acceptable’ ads — a la AdBlock Plus — not just its current offering of an opt out of “abusive ads”, as he terms current gen display ad fodder.

That said, Carthy is not giving any specifics on what Shine’s future business model might look like at this stage.

“It’s not necessarily something we are bringing forth right now,” he says, discussing the notion of hammering out some form of ‘acceptable ads’ in discussion with ad tech folks in future. “But we are certainly happy to have conversations on it. To come to an agreement on what is a proper policy is something that requires conversation and time. It’s not instantaneous, and as you can imagine it will be contentions. We’ve seen how much criticism AdBlock Plus is getting.”

“We’re in the consumer protection business and we won’t betray consumer trust for monetization. That being said we’re not philanthropists and we have investors who would like to have money back and we believe that we can monetize a relationship of trust and choice with consumers — that’s of a more longer play type of thing for us,” he adds.

“We believe that if consumers trust us to protect them and their advertising experience we can likely find ways where we can make Shine a very successful company.”

How long will it be before Shine expects to start monetizing its user-base? “I’m not really sure yet,” says Carthy. “For us it’s a long play. For us really the objective is to roll our technology across more and more carriers and opt in hundreds of million of consumers to our service. That’s our objective.”

“Consumers will have every right to stop using us if we betray a promise or if they feel unsure if they can trust us, that’s perfectly fair,” he adds.

Shine is also shy about talking about the specifics of how its technology works. Carthy will say it’s installed in carriers’ data centers, and he likens its operation to parental control software for blocking certain types of age-inappropriate content. On top of these hardware installation Shine works with carriers to offer specific services tailored for their users — focused on its twin pillars of ad blocking and privacy protection (i.e. ad tracker blocking).

“The reason I can’t go into detail [about the technology] is because this is a technology war,” he says. “Fire-vs-fire. Cat and mouse game with high stakes. Being a cybersecurity firm by origin, we don’t divulge our bits & bytes publicly.

“That said, I can explain the high-level. We use DPI [deep packet inspection] machines with real-time AI algorithms to detect ads (harder than it sounds as there is continued evading and masquerading). We then remove them, and ensure that the web page or app isn’t broken.”

Why should consumers trust a third party company to have explicit visibility into their mobile browsing habits? On this point Carthy stresses Shine’s security credentials. The company’s line on its backstory is that it was founded to protect consumers from malware. “Staying true to our cause, we found ourselves as the strongest line of defence in protecting consumers from AdTech,” it writes.

Carthy explicitly confirms Shine is not doing any data harvesting, network data analysis or user tracking itself. It’s just doing DPI in order to hunt and kill the ads, he says.

“Our origin is in cyber security and white hat hacking. That’s where the company comes from. The company was founded to reinvent the antivirus. A few things happened and now we’re helping consumers protect themselves from adtech. But we are not in the business of abusing consumers, we’re in the business of protecting them, or helping them protect themselves. So any notion of us abusing data or doing it for any ulterior motive, it’s not plausible for us.”

Returning to the ad blocking battlefield, one interesting development has been the rise in the number of publishers blocking ad blocker users. Carthy couches this as “an extremely short-sighted hysterical reaction”. But it’s also a reaction that risks making Shine less attractive to smartphone users. Because if people switch on Shine via their carrier and find they can’t read their favorite news site, well they may feel moved to switch it off again…

Forbes ad blocker blocker

“These [ad blocker blocking] properties have not embraced the fact that their monetization best practices are outdated,” argues Carthy. “We are now between two chapters and they need to understand it. One has ended and a new one is beginning, and it’s where monetization will not outweigh consumer benefit.”

“Any time that ad tech or publishers would like to sit down with Shine and discuss the future, what is in the benefit of consumers, we’d be happy to do that,” he adds.

Another development that might threaten Shine’s ability to deliver network-level ad blocking from a technical standpoint is of course growing use of encryption, which would block its ability to do DPI to identify ads.

Add to that, there are questions about whether net neutrality rules might not rule out ISPs deploying ad blocking — albeit Three clearly thinks Europe’s recently formed net neutrality rules aren’t a blocker to offering an opt-in ad blocking service to its users.

Despite all these challenges, Carthy says Shine has been approached by a number of media and adtech companies wanting to have discussions about its technology (but he won’t name any names). “The nature of the discussions was… what is really motivating Shine. And what we have clarified is that number one we are not against advertising, that we are against abusive advertising. And secondly that we will not look the other way — meaning there is no way to pay us off to look the other way.

“Those were the key items of the conversations and that’s been communicated very clearly and also embraced on the other side very clearly. They understand where we’re coming from. They believe we certainly don’t make their life easier but they understand that we do stand behind what we’re saying.”

So what might acceptable advertising look like to Shine in the future? Does Carthy have a rough idea of this point? After all, if he’s telling publishers they need to wake up and smell the coffee and evolve their business models it might be helpful to have some practical examples of an alternative monetization strategy for their content for him to point to.

“Not yet,” he says responding to this. “But we are more than happy to have those conversations and if we believe that there are parties that are serious and we can come to an agreement that doesn’t put consumers at harm then maybe we can figure something out.”

But of course Shine needs to build its network first — to become big and threatening enough to force ad tech firms to change their ways. And it’s still a long way away from reaching those target hundreds of millions of users. It’s won a battle here, snagging its first European carriers. But the ad blocking wars are just getting started on mobile. And it’s by no means clear how the various moves and counter moves will play out.

“At the moment we are focused solely on bringing the right ad block to consumers and protecting them from digital abuse,” adds Carthy, eyes very clearly on growing its own network prize.