Content blocking is the web at its best

Disclaimer: I’m SVP of Firefox at Mozilla, I’m clearly biased, but I’m writing here just as me. IT’S ALL ABOUT ME, DAMNIT.

Boy there’s been a lot of attention on content blocking in the last week! Apple entered the debate with the blunt instrument that is Safari / SafariViewController for iOS9, and all of a sudden everyone noticed. As they should. Tim Bray’s Money and Ads on the Web links to a bunch of writing worth reading, and I’d recommend Zeldman’s piece on Ad Blocking and the Future of the Web as a must read. But for all the reasonable, intelligent articles that try to wrestle with the fact that content blocking is a complex issue, it pretty much boils down to this:

Then: Users: Please DoNotTrack me ; AdTech+Publishers: Screw you
Now: AdTech+Publishers: Please DoNotAdBlock me ; Users: Screw you

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year thinking about how to evolve the web’s relationship with ads responsibly, and you see that work shipping in Firefox’s Tracking Protection for Private Browsing mode, which is moving to Firefox Beta tomorrow, and also in how we designed Tiles for the new tab page to respect user choice and privacy. I’m really proud of the work we did, and I’ll talk more about it soon.

Right now, though, in the middle of all this attention around content blocking, what I’m struck by is that the web’s model allows us to have a debate about content blockers at all. The web is still fairly unique in that its fundamental architecture is built around a “user agent” that sits between the publisher and consumer and that agent mediates the experience. Also of note, the web browser is the only agent the user chooses separately from content (thx for reminding me, @osunick). It’s a pretty powerful model that has benefitted all parties involved over the last 15 years, and without that design tradeoff we wouldn’t be having this debate at all. The web’s kinda old, yeah, but it’s still got some fascinating properties that differentiate it from everything else!

The other big thing I’ve been thinking about over the last week is whether I should have had my team build a Safari content blocker. We considered it, debated it, decided against it, and in retrospect, I suspect I held too tightly to an opinion that Apple was being irresponsible in their pursuit to harm Google by implementing content blocking with little to no user interaction capability. “We’d never ship something this crude!”, I argued. An opinion rooted in the fact we’ve had the technical ability in Firefox to do what Safari is effectively doing for over a year, but we decided that we didn’t have good enough answers to “well, what should the system work like, then? how and why do sites get on/off these lists?” and until we did we wouldn’t ship for general browsing. This is where Apple differs from a pure web browser vendor like Mozilla, I suppose; Apple has an answer for publishers to the often shitty experience of web advertising: don’t use the web, use apps with iAds, use Apple News, use Apple Music, use Apple… Apple’s answer isn’t a better web, really, it’s Apple’s iOS ecosystem.

It’s not too late, of course. We know how to build for iOS, have the policies/tech/lists we developed for Tracking Protection in Firefox, have no need to ever charge money (and therefore, arguably, no potential conflict of interest) for a content blocking app or list curation service, can credibly say we could operate in the open with transparency, and of course we have a running theory that users might want Mozilla to have a part in how this plays out on iOS.

Whereas Marco just didn’t feel good about the success of his #1 app, I think for many folks at Mozilla it just doesn’t feel good for us NOT to be there for our users, skin in the game, working to make the web better, despite the severe limitations that Apple’s placed on developers implementing content blocking.

A final thought on Apple and the web. John Gruber argues that the outcomes, whatever they may be, should not be framed as “Because of Apple”, but as “because of us”, and that’s true but I think he is underestimating Apple’s influence and role in this somewhat. First with Flash, and now with content blocking, Apple is shaping the web as we know it. It’s almost ironic, then, that while the health of the web isn’t top of Apple’s mind (hurting Google and advancing their own ecosystem clearly is), they have an uncanny ability to create these watershed moments that force the web to adapt and get better.

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Jamie Larson