That Peace ad blocker affair

Tech Life

I’ve been debating whether to write something about this or just let it go (because part of me still thinks the whole situation deserves more indifference than attention). I shared my reactions over Twitter while the general debate was unfolding, and I thought about writing a post in the heat of the moment. Which is usually a bad idea, so I waited a few days, let the whole affair cool off, and if in the meantime it stops bugging me — I thought — maybe I won’t even bother publishing anything.

But here we are.

I’m writing this assuming you know what I’m talking about, but in short: when iOS 9 was officially available to the general public on September 16, developer Marco Arment announced his new app, Peace, a “privacy-focused iOS 9 ad blocker.” Then, two days later, right when Peace was experiencing an incredible success (number one paid app in the U.S. App Store), he unexpectedly pulled the app from the App Store. The reason: for him, that much success, that much money made selling a tool which, as he wrote, “while [ad blockers] do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit,” ultimately did not feel good. You can imagine the subsequent debate. If you can’t, believe me, it’s been ugly. The core of the ugliness, I think, has been that many people suspected there was more behind Arment’s decision than he was letting on; that perhaps he was driven to withdraw Peace by some of his friends who put ads on their websites, because Peace could hurt their business; or that Arment was even offered money by ad providers to remove his ad blocker.

I don’t know. I admit it’s been tempting to give in to such suspicions. After reading an article like The ethics of modern Web ad-blocking, where Arment writes:

I’ve never been tempted to run ad-blocking software before — I make most of my living from ads, as do many of my friends and colleagues, and I’ve always wanted to support the free media I consume. But in the last few years, possibly due to the dominance of low-quality ad networks and the increased share of mobile browsing (which is far less lucrative for ads, and more sensitive to ad intrusiveness, than PC browsing), web ad quality and tolerability have plummeted, and annoyance, abuse, misdirection, and tracking have skyrocketed.

Publishers don’t have an easy job trying to stay in business today, but that simply doesn’t justify the rampant abuse, privacy invasion, sleaziness, and creepiness that many of them are forcing upon their readers, regardless of whether the publishers feel they had much choice in the matter.

Modern web ads and trackers are far over the line for many people today, and they’ve finally crossed the line for me, too. Just as when pop-ups crossed the line fifteen years ago, technical countermeasures are warranted.

After reading such an article, I wasn’t surprised at all that Arment would develop something like Peace. It felt like a natural step: he saw a problem and he wanted to do something about it, in this case developing a tool which could help people mitigate that “rampant abuse” and “privacy invasion” perpetrated by so many ads and trackers.

With this context, Arment’s change of heart feels like a rushed backtracking, a total volte-face, and while I’m not questioning his sincerity, at the same time I can understand why many considered it suspicious. In his post Just doesn’t feel good, Arment writes:

Achieving this much success with Peace just doesn’t feel good, which I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have.

[…]

Even though I’m “winning”, I’ve enjoyed none of it. That’s why I’m withdrawing from the market.

It’s simply not worth it. I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to turn away an opportunity like this, and I don’t begrudge anyone else who wants to try it. I’m just not built for this business.

I’ll be honest, I find hard to believe that Arment didn’t anticipate Peace’s success and, above all, how Peace would be employed and the impact it would have — it is an ad blocker after all. It doesn’t seem to be a product that was developed in a rush and on a whim, either. It’s evident by what Arment wrote in August that he was fed up with how ads are served on the Web nowadays. During a conversation with some friends on the day Peace was removed from the App Store, I said that it was as if someone had launched a new brand of cigarettes only to withdraw the product shortly afterwards because they didn’t anticipate people would become addicted or that the product would increase the possibility of suffering from lung cancer. It’s a very strong image, I know, but the point is: when you manufacture a product whose usage and purpose are so transparent, it’s hard to believe you didn’t anticipate the consequences or implications.

(Brief aside on the subject: to this date, the best article written about Arment is, in my opinion, Marco Arment and Context, by Jonathan Poritsky.)

Anyway, I have often prided myself on offering fair and balanced commentary here, and everything I’ve written above is pure speculation. I’m not here to question Arment’s sincerity — I don’t know him personally, I’ve never interacted with him in any way, I don’t have the facts and the background; only what he writes publicly. I’m not here to insult him gratuitously, either.

The simple criticism I want to provide is that, in my opinion, Arment acted unprofessionally, and the precedent he’s setting is that of an unreliable, volatile developer. Peace uses Ghostery’s database to work, and there was an arrangement with Ghostery in place (“I’ll make and sell the app and give them a percentage of the revenue.” – Arment wrote in the post announcing Peace). Deciding to pull the app from the store was something that affected Ghostery as well. Sure, it may have been a joint decision, as Arment writes, and there may be no hard feelings on Ghostery’s part, but this only goes to show how those who acted professionally — considering the whole situation — have been the people at Ghostery. They gave Arment full and prompt collaboration so that Peace could be launched on the same day as iOS 9, and they agreed to pull the app two days later. It’s safe to say that, if different parties had been involved, probably some suing would have ensued. But Marco now has given Peace to Ghostery, I hear you object, he’s been a gentleman. No, under the circumstances, giving Peace to Ghostery was the least he could do, professionally speaking.

Another thing I find unacceptable with hindsight is that while Peace and other prominent ad blockers were ready to launch on day one of iOS 9’s release, other indie developers like the people behind Silentium were hurt because their app was still in ‘Waiting for Review’ status. The removal of Peace might turn out to be beneficial for other competing ad blockers, but for people like Silentium’s developers it must have been especially bitter to see that Peace got precedence and launched on day one, got a lot of attention and business, only to disappear shortly afterwards. It feels a bit unfair.

Now Apple is proactively refunding all purchases of Peace, which is something that, as Arment himself admits, “effectively never happens.” Apple has the power to do what it wants, of course, but this preferential treatment annoys me — not because it’s Marco Arment, as I have nothing against him personally — but because it simply should not happen. All developers should be treated equally, for better or worse. The App Store should be a place where the big fish and the small fish have the same chances at succeeding (or failing). No fast tracks or preferential treatment because you’re a big company or a prominent indie developer.

[Final disclaimer: I did not purchase Peace, not because I didn’t want to, but because my iPhone 5 and iPad 3 do not support Safari content blockers. So I haven’t written this article from the possibly biased perspective of a customer who purchased Peace and ‘got burnt’, so to speak.]

The Author

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