Apple's Content Blocker feature is probably the most controversial addition to to iOS 9, and it also has the potential to be a great asset for mobile Web browsing if it's used responsibly. What are content blockers, and what's the right way to use them, you ask? Read on to find out.
What are Content Blockers?
Content Blockers filter what comes from online servers into your Web browser. That can include certain types of code, online trackers, Web cookies, images, and even complete sites.
No content blockers (left), and content blockers in action (right)
Most people equate ad blockers with content blockers because they are—for practical purposes—pretty much the same. The code content blockers keep out of your browser is typically what displays ads in pages and as pop-up or pop-under content, but they aren't limited to just advertising-related code.
Why Do People Use Content Blockers?
For some people, it's all about improving page loading performance. Many sites load a lot of content and code that isn't necessary to actually display a site, but instead supports under the hood stuff like tracking how you use a specific site, what you're looking at, the searches you perform, and where you go when you leave for a different site. When that content gets blocked, sites load substantially faster.
A lot of that extra stuff drags down site loading times and hurts overall site performance. It also eats into your data cap if you're surfing the Web from your smartphone.
For some people, it's all about privacy. They don't want advertisers to be privy to their browsing habits or collecting information they feel should be private.
Some people use content blockers because they don't want to see ads on websites. Sometimes it's because those ads are intrusive and other times it's because they feel paying for the content the see isn't their responsibility.
How do Content Blockers work in iOS 9?
Apple added content blocker support for Mobile Safari in iOS 9, but you'll have to download apps that do the actual filtering part. Once installed, go to Settings > Safari > Content Blockers to turn them on. If the installed content blockers include their own settings, you'll have to hop into their accompanying app to change those.
Mobile Safari's content blocker settings
When a content blocker app is enabled, it watches your Internet traffic and automatically blocks anything it deems unacceptable, like trackers and code that isn't needed for site functionality.
Do Content Blockers Work on All iOS 9-Compatible Devices?
In a word, nope. iOS 9's Content Blocker feature requires a 64-bit processor, so that means an iPhone 5s or newer, iPad mini 2 or newer, iPad Air or iPad Air 2, or at least a 5th generation iPod touch. Sorry, iPhone 5c owners, you're out of luck.
Content Blockers will also work on the soon to be released iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, as well as the iPad Pro.
Next up: Finding content blocker apps, and the ad blocker controversy
Finding content blocker apps, and the ad blocker controversy
How do I Find Content Blocker Apps?
Content Blocker apps are available through Apple's App Store, just like any other app you install on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. We put together a list of several you can choose from:
- 1Blocker free ($2.99 in-app purchase for unlimited blockers) This app includes a crazy-long list of settings. It looks intimidating at first, but it's actually really cool because it gives you fine-tuned control over what content gets blocked. Want to see the custom fonts a site uses, but don't want trackers or share widgets? Not a problem.
- Adamant free ($1.99 in-app purchase for regularly updated block lists) This app blocks ads, trackers, and what it calls "other unwanted elements." You can disable tracker blocking, but that's it.
- Blockr $0.99 Ads, images, social sharing buttons, and trackers can be blocked, plus you get settings to control what content passes through Blockr's filters.
- Crystal $0.99 This app is pretty simple. Once it's installed it just does its thing. Crystal blocks ads and trackers.
- Purify $3.99 Ads and trackers are blocked by default, and you can also block images, scripts, and custom fonts from loading, too.
1Blocker (left), Adamant (center), Purify (right)
Marco Arment's Peace app was available on the App Store for only two days before he chose to pull it and stop development and support. It quickly became the top selling app during its brief life, and he killed it because he didn't feel right becoming the arbiter of what we see on the Internet.
Peace's code has been handed over to Ghosterty, the online service that shows how sites are tracking your online activities and lets you control which trackers get blocked. Peace used Ghostery's database, so it made sense that when Mr. Arment washed his hands of the project he gave his code to the company.
Peace was great, but it didn't do much to discriminate what content was blocked. Comment systems, for example, were blocked along with trackers and ads. TMO's Dave Hamilton equated that to throwing out the baby with the bath water, but added, "I grok that Marco did it because many sites use script-based comment engines like Disqus."
Can I use More than One Content Blocker?
You can use as many content blocker apps as you want, and you can use them simultaneously. You may get some redundant filtering, but that's okay.
It also means you can use apps that block specific content the way you want. Think of it as a way to tailor fit your content blocking needs.
Can I Override Content Blockers?
Let's say you want to see a site without any content filtering, but it's a one-off thing. Just tap and hold the page reload button in Mobile Safari's URL field to show the override sheet.
You can choose to reload the page without content blockers, and you can also choose to view the desktop version instead of the mobile layout.
Why are Content Blockers Such a Big Deal?
Content blockers are pretty controversial because they prevent some on-site ads from loading, and publishers see that as lost revenue. Lose enough revenue from blocked ads, they argue, and their site folds because there isn't any money coming in.
Site visiters argue that ads are intrusive, make it difficult to find the content they want, and make pages load slowly. Some also feel entitled to ad-free content because they don't feel they should have to pay for what they see.
Both sides have legitimate concerns. Content creators want to bring in the money they need to keep their sites afloat, and viewers don't want to be bombarded with ads they aren't interested in and obscure what they came looking for.
Some sites force pop-over ads before you can view content, others push auto-playing video ads in your face, roll-over ads pop-up as you move your mouse pointer across a page, some pages are so ad-heavy you can't find what you're looking for... the list of annoying online advertising techniques goes on.
People flip out over a $3.00 to-do app, but they're shelling out that much for ad blocker apps. That's a pretty clear sign something is wrong with the whole web advertising market.
Dave Hamilton offered me some more insite into the online advertising market. "We didn't have this problem the day before Google launched AdSense," he said. Before AdSense, the whole set-it-and-forget-it approach to online advertising wasn't as big a thing and Google wasn't in control of the ads we see and how we see them.
We also didn't have over-the-top-in-your-face advertising techniques leaving a bitter taste in site viewer's mouths like we see today. That isn't inherently a Google issue, but it still does a lot to make viewers want to block all ads regardless of how unobtrusive they may be.
Turns out content blockers are a little controversial
What's Behind Apple Adding Content Blockers to iOS 9?
iOS 9's Content Blocker feature is about more than giving us faster page load times; it's about who controls online advertising. This is a war between Apple and Google, and we're caught in the middle.
Google's advertising platform is massive. It's how the company makes money, and it's been so successful because Google can leverage the data it collects from our Web surfing habits. Google handles ad placement for small independent sites and major publications alike, so there's a good chance almost every site you visit that hosts ads is getting at least some of them through Google's services.
Content blockers cut into Google's revenue stream, and Apple's News app in iOS 9 is likely part of that master plan, too. While Apple works to cut Google's ad revenue with content blockers, it also offers websites an ad revenue platform outside of Google in the News app.
Ads displayed in News and other apps aren't affected by content blockers. Apple handles those in-app adds instead of Google, and while that isn't going to kill Google's business, it sends a pretty strong message: Apple wants to hit Google where it hurts.
Should I Use Content Blockers?
Whether or not to use content blockers is a personal choice. Blocking ads cuts into the potential revenue publishers use to keep their sites online, and without money coming in it gets hard to pay the bills.
The trick for publishers is to find a balance that works for them and viewers. TMO's Dave Hamilton wants your opinion on that, so let him know.
Content blockers also have real benefits for mobile users: Sites load faster and less content downloads, so you take less of a hit on your monthly data cap.
With great power comes great responsibility, so it's up to you to decide how to wield the new controls Apple has handed you in iOS 9.