Apple has paved the way for iPhone users to block online advertising on its Safari web browser, in a move that threatens to hurt digital media companies including Google.
Changes planned for iOS 9, the operating system that will be pushed out later this year, include “Content Blocking Safari Extensions”, according to documents shared with appmakers this week at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference.
“Content blocking gives your extensions a fast and efficient way to block cookies, images, resources, pop-ups and other content,” Apple said in documentation for developers.
Ad-blocking has been available on the desktop version of Safari for several years, but the new tool opens up the possibility for users to install an app that would block advertising and associated tracking technologies on the iPhone’s browser for the first time.
Mobile advertising is one of the fastest-growing sources of revenues for digital media companies. Marketers will spend $69bn this year on mobile ads — more than triple the sum they spent two years ago — according to eMarketer, the research group.
Apple believes that privacy and security are two of the greatest differentiators of iOS against Google’s Android mobile platform, which runs on more than three-quarters of all smartphones sold. Tim Cook, Apple chief executive, last week declared his belief in a “fundamental right to privacy”.
Over video link from Silicon Valley, he told an audience at an event in Washington organised by Epic, the privacy research group, that many technology companies were “gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetise it. We think that’s wrong.”
Nonetheless, the move to enable ad-blocking on iPhones has caused concern among some in the media industry, as Apple customers are widely seen as a wealthier demographic desirable to advertisers.
Joshua Benton, director of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, called it a “worrisome” development. “For the many news companies counting on mobile advertising for their business model, I don’t see a way that this change doesn’t shave off a real slice of mobile advertising revenue,” he wrote in a blogpost on Wednesday.
An increasing number of consumers use ad-blocking tools to view websites undisturbed by banners, pop-ups and other flashy graphics that they believe distract from editorial content. A study by Adobe and PageFair, which helps companies deal with ad-blocking, last year reported 70 per cent growth in the use of such technologies to an estimated 140m people — or 5 per cent of the online population.
Last month, the Financial Times revealed that a number of European mobile operators planned to block advertising on their networks as early as this year.
Larry Page, chief executive of Google, told shareholders at the company’s annual meeting last week that “the industry needs to do better at producing ads that are less annoying, and that are quicker to load, and all those things” to deal with the rise of ad-blocking.
Some analysts have calculated that Google loses out on billions of dollars of potential revenues as a result of blocking. However, Mr Page played down the threat, saying that search ads — its main source of revenues — are among the least likely ad formats to be blocked because they are “really useful” for consumers.
Several companies, including Google, Amazon and Microsoft, have paid Eyeo, the company behind popular tool Adblock Plus, to ensure their ads appear on a whitelist of “acceptable” ads that are not blocked.
Advertising technology experts cautioned that until more details are known about the Safari extensions, it will be hard to judge how big an impact the changes will have.
In a blogpost about the planned changes in iOS 9, Sebastian Noack of Adblock Plus said that it was unclear whether Apple’s extension would help or hinder its technology.
“The best case is that the new API will help us to improve the performance and adblocking experience on Safari, and paves the way for an iOS adblocker,” Mr Noack wrote. “Or it will force us to rely upon an inferior blocking format that would essentially kill adblocking on Safari.”
Apple did not comment further on its plans.
The planned update comes as Apple tries to re-establish its place at the heart of the media and entertainment industry with the launch of Music, an all-in-one subscription streaming and radio app, and News, a slick magazine-style app showing a range of free content from publishers that will compete with the likes of Flipboard and Facebook’s Instant Stories.
Apple’s News app will allow publishers to sell their own advertising or split revenues when using its own iAd tool.