Network neutrality: a French ISP attacks advertising

Network neutrality: a French ISP attacks advertising

With the addition of an ad blocker to its set-top box and its default activation, the French ISP Free threatens the statu quo on network neutrality.

In a recent update to the firmware of its set-top box, the French ISP Free provides an add blocker. It is still in beta, but activated by default. It may seem to be a good initiative at first sight. After all, advertising on websites can be really annoying and many people are using ad blockers such as the Adblock add-on to get rid of this nuisance. So why should it be a problem? And why does it face criticisms from many Internet actors?

A threat to ad-supported sites

Since the rise of online advertising in the 1990s, it has been the main source of income for most free websites¹. While it may seem to be a nuisance, free radio stations and televisions channels have been using the same business model for decades, with little opposition. Without advertising, many free websites might suffer considerable loss of income, which could result either in a shift of business model from advertising-supported to donation-supported. Regardlessly of one’s opinion of the advertising-supported business model, should it be up to Free to decide whether websites should use it?

A slippery slope to network partiality

Free has since long been infamous for its slow transfer rates with YouTube and for peer-to-peer file transfer networks and is facing plaints from French consumer union UFC-Que Choisir for its unwillingness to address them. Now, by filtering advertisement without informing its users, it poses another threat to network neutrality. If this ad blocker is kept activated by default, the next step could be to make it mandatory, or to extend it to other contents and charge for its deactivation. Free has already made it clear that net neutrality was not in their agenda, and this could be the beginning of a slippery slope to a severe network partiality.

But there are already countless ad blockers!

The existing ad blockers, such as AdBlock are not provided by default in most configurations. They are installed knowingly by their users and allow whitelisting and other selective filtering of advertisements. The main issues of this ad blocker is its activation by default, without even informing the users of the Freebox and its blind filtering, without any mean of allowing selected advertisements. In the contrary, since most non-technical users probably won’t notice it or won’t bother to deactivate, this ad blocker will affect the online advertising for the majority of the so-called Freenautes. Moreover, through its triple play offers, Free is also a television provider, and could filter the television advertisement in the same way.

An arm-wrestling with Google?

As already stated, Free has already willingly dismissed complaints from its customers about its bad support of Google video service YouTube, advising its customers to use Dailymotion instead, and more recently, its Video On Demand services. Since Google is the main online advertisement network, through Google Syndication and DoubleClick, this measure impacts it more than any other society. Moreover, it seems that while advertisements are filtered on YouTube, it is not the case for Dailymotion.

Incidentally, the fight over YouTube has been going on for months, with Free urging Google to invest in infrastructures and Google arguing that the performance of networks were the responsibility of ISPs. With the filing of a plaint against Free by UFC-Que Choisir in November, this ad blocker might just be an attempt to force Google to change its position?

¹with the notable exception of Wikipedia, whose only source of income is donation.

Picture CC-BY-NC-SA FreePress