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6th May 2015

Blog: Content Filtering - Is it wrong?

Content filtering - is it wrong?Internet Content filtering, especially as far as our own products go, is most commonly associated with the blocking of 'adult' content in environments where children might get access as well as content blocking for workplaces - to stop employees from accessing inappropriate sites, sites which could compromise company data or those which just waste company time.

In the simplest example, you can block specific web sites - for example 'Facebook' or 'Gmail'. Alternatively, you can apply category filtering to block, for example all 'adult' sites, webmail or social media etc.   

However, this also means is that you can block any site which you might find intrusive or annoying - a site which you're 'dragged along to' by the web site which you do want to visit.  This particularly relates to in-site advertising and click-bait links which are provided by 3rd parties.  

By blocking the 3rd parties, but allowing your main wanted web site, you end up with a 'cleaner' experience. For those of you who can't help yourselves from falling for clickbait, this could be the self-control you need. 

What is clickbait?

If you're not familiar with the term, 'Clickbait' are 'sensational' links designed to entice you  on the promise of some valuable or amazing information or salacious gossip. Examples might be:

  • You won't believe which celebrity has just bought one of our routers.
  • Click here to find out how to win at roulette every time
  • Find out how this woman lost 12Kg in just 12 minutes
  • 20 celebrities who used to work in fast food restaurants
  • Want to get your next router at half price?

Yes, who wouldn't want that information?  What you end up with might be technically what they have promised, some dodgy diet pill, a wholly convoluted and pointless web site or some list that wastes 15 minutes of your day, spread unnecessarily into 20 pages in order that they can deliver the maximum number of adverts etc.   One of the more objectionable effects of clickbait in some instances is where it's not clear that they are sponsored messages - they appear on otherwise trusted sources (web sites) so you click, believing it to be one of their own news stories, but actually it's a paid-for sponsored link.  If it's not very clearly labelled as 'Sponsored Link' and suitably demarcated, people can be fooled.

On the other hand, you might actually enjoy clickbait - when done well, by responsible providers, clearly demarcated, it can  entertain or inform legitimately.  Sometimes clickbait gives genuinely useful information, perhaps from a web site simply trying to increase the number of  visitors, who might then become regulars.  Other times, clickbait is a distraction which you can't help but click in case it genuinely delivers useful information which you'd hate to miss.

So what is the fuss about?

As we said earlier, if you block those providers, you end up with a cleaner web experience, or one in which you get the content from the page you visited and not other stuff which they 'force' you to download and display.  This is in some ways the equivalent of getting someone to remove the adverts and catalogues from your newspaper before you read them.  However, as many web sites are free, they rely on advertising to keep them in business, and if the adverts don't appear, they are not getting the revenue. If everyone did it, they'd have to shut down.

This isn't a new problem

In 2002, a company called ReplayTV introduced DVR (a digital video recorder - like today's Tivo or Sky+) which had the ability to automatically fast forward through the commercials.  Advertisers were not happy, and sued ReplayTV. The case never actually got settled because ReplayTV went out of business for other reasons.  Years earlier, Sony, the makers of VCRs (video cassette recorders) were sued by Universal Pictures because VCR allowed users to manually fast forward through commercials. Universal lost that case and ever since, fast forwarding through commercials is second nature to most viewers. The point is, advertisers pay broadcasters and publishers to deliver, and object to attempts to interfere with that.  Where that advertising is paying for the content, blocking it poses a moral question.  Some people argue that particularly annoying pop-ups, videos which play automatically ('stealing your bandwidth').

What does a content-blocked web site look like?


To see how effective ad-blocking can be, here is  an example web site.  We're not suggesting that there is anything wrong with The Guardian site, we just happened to test content filtering there and could have chosen any other site.  We blocked the most common providers of advertising and clickbait and this was the result:


Guardian Website without filtering Guardian Website with filtering

As you can see, the page on the right is not only much shorter (missing advertising sections altogether) but space reserved for adverts has been replaced by grey boxes.

The cost of unwanted content 

In 1998, Clearway's 'Adscreen' product claimed to block advertising at a time when most users were still on dial-up and more data meant longer phone calls and slower load times. Effectively you were paying to receive advertising. The product was pulled following a blacklash from web sites whose users were Clearway's main customers.  

Today, with most users on high speed always-on connections, calls costs and load times are rarely an issue for fixed line customers.  I have just finished 6 months on a cellular connection with a monthly data limit (it look that long to get a fixed line installed); during that time, I was not delighted with large flash adverts, Facebook automatically playing videos or various other unnecessary shennagians using up my bandwidth. As mobile Internet usage increases, people are starting to care about their content volumes again.

The most well known software product for ad-blocking today is Adblock plus, originally a Firefox plugin but now available for most browsers.  It is free and open-source, and the source of much debate on both sides of the argument.  

Many analogies are used, such as that you wouldn't be allowed to deface or remove a billboard on the street. That, for example, falls down because a billboard doesn't take up your own real-estate, doesn't force you to increase your data volume, doesn't slow down your data, provide distracting animations and it's clearly a billboard.  If an advert is not annoying and unduly large in volume, no-one should object.  Google's adverts are not intrusive, for example (IMHO).   Clickbait in particular is often easy to mistake for legitimate editorial of the host site.  Irresponsible or greedy advertisers therefore cause problems for legitimate advertisers who most people don't mind.


So what is fair or right?

The Internet is full of debate, from both sides of the argument.  In summary:

Against ad-blocking:

  • "Web sites depend on advertising revenue to stay in business."
  • "It's wrong to take the content, but not in the form intended".  

In favour of ad-blocking:

  • "It's my bandwidth - I pay for it, especially on my mobile phone/tablet".
  • "I should be able to block what I want."
  • I have epilepsy or photophobia. I can't risk an advert affecting me".
  • "Don't blame me because you use a bad, broken business model..."
  • "If your website was of any real value, people would pay to read it".
  • "The BBC web site has no advertising!"

We're not going to judge or validate those; You'll have your own view.

Note : This article is an editorial piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of DrayTek Corp, its staff or any associated person or company. The information is provided in good faith based on publicly available information however has not been independently verified. As such, no reliance, commercial or otherwise should be placed on the information which is provided for discussion or interest only. No endorsement or connection is implied of any 3rd party by inclusion of their names, images, trademarks or links.   Images are used under fair use provisions.



From: James

Ad blocking is questionable, it means you aren't paying for the content you are viewing, however you did not agree to pay the website through ad views, so effectively it is you not fulfilling the payment of a contract you didn't sign, but still receiving the fruits of that contract.

Content blocking in terms of what pages are and aren't viewable is another issue. If it is a child then that's fine, a child needs to be protected as adult content can have an affect on mental development. In a workplace is also fine as you are paid to work. However what should not be allowed is landlords filtering content. Stopping torrenting is acceptable as it is predominantly used for criminal activity, however the blocking of things like adult websites and other such thing should be illegal against an adult renter as it is in effect a form of censorship based upon pushing your morals on others. Drayteks current system is awful for this. My landlord, as many other student landlords do, uses a Draytek router to block torrenting, however they also use Drayteks blacklist, which blocks all sorts from things like the student room (a forum to help students) reddit, tv show wikias and all sorts of other perfectly safe websites, as well as the usual pornography sites and what not. The question is why is it legal for them to filter consenting adults from using basic parts of the internet, and why does Draytek beleive it is acceptable to provide the software to allow them to do it?

From: Tom G

In response to Mark

"Tracking" is effectively a Facebook like button on a page. That button is able to store a third party cookie, which Facebook can see, and thus knows you've visited that website. This helps Facebook to target more relevant ad content.

In my opinion, it benefits everyone. I'd much rather see adverts for products I've recently viewed on Amazon over a randomly placed advert for women's underwear

From: Mark

As you point out in the article, its hard to have a problem with Googles basic text ads; ads that take up little bandwidth and don't flash, pop, jump or shout at you are probably fine for most people.

But I think whats fast becoming much more of a problem in most peoples eyes - and which I think in the end will entirely eclipse the argument about the ads themselves - is the tracking and profiling that happens largely unseen under the radar, and of which Google is probably the most cited example. In the arguments that go on about this online, while the advocates of ads to keep the net 'free' don't have too much trouble defending well behaved adverts, they are usually at a loss for any argument at all when it comes to tracking.

While the Snowden revelations have definitely given this an impetus, it would likely be coming to a head in any case due to the endless stream of - often huge - data breaches that seem a daily occurrence, and a growing view that much of the ad supported web; regurgitated comment, comment on news, poorly disguised press releases and even machine written stuff are decidedly not worth funding in the first place. As sites that push such material are often the worst examples of abusive ads and pages with 50 or 60 trackers, its no great surprise.

The next Page + Brin will probably be whoever manages to reconcile the growing movement for privacy with a means of funding an open and worthwhile web.

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