A recent report from the Financial Times just might be recognized in history as the opening salvo in a new digital war between major publishers and ISPs who want a piece of the free Internet's ad revenue pie. An Israel-based startup called Shine is gearing up to serve European ISPs who want to test the market's tolerance for aggressive ISP-level interference with the neutral Internet. They plan to employ Shine's ISP-level ad-blocking technology, initially against Google's text-based AdWords advertising, until the search giant – and eventually other targets – agree to pay for play. This proposition will undoubtedly raise the tenor of the ongoing global debate over net neutrality and what it really means for the Internet to be neutral.
Shine's financial incentive clearly exists as ad revenue from mobile advertising continues to rise steeply. The industry showed 50% year-over-year annual growth in mobile ad spend for each of the past two years, and it expects to reap nearly $70 billion in mobile ad revenue for 2015 and see it account for the majority of ad revenue generated on the web. That number represents more than a three-fold explosion in mobile ad spend since 2013. That's a huge pot of money now up for grabs from mobile content distributors. As Google owns the lion's share of the mobile ads market, they're an obvious primary target for Shine. Google's public profile alone will easily justify an avalanche of free press coverage for Shine while they showcase their controversial technology and reveal the details of their dirty plan. Google, more so than any other publisher, would have much to lose from a sustained, coordinated network-level attack on their primary revenue source.
So, the question that follows these announcements from Shine and their anonymous cohort of European ISPs is this: Can Google be legally successfully extorted for a cut of their ad revenue? Shine's chief marketing officer thinks so. He says the choice to block advertising is a "consumer right." Well, sure. The argument makes sense when it's referring to the case where an individual consumer installs an ad-blocking plugin or disables their browser cookies. It doesn't necessarily apply to network-level filtering of the web – a filter which, importantly, is being described in no uncertain terms as being first-and-foremost a tactic to boost the revenue streams of the coordinated ISPs. Should the plan gain a legal foothold, it wouldn't preclude the ISPs from selling or injecting their own advertising in place of Google's or even alongside Google's. So it doesn't appear this push by ISPs really aims to protect the actual consumer's right to ad-block. There isn't a definition of "consumer" which accords with the intent they've expressed through their pro-extortion statements.
It's really interesting to consider these moves in light of Google's expressed ambition to become its own stellar ISP. While Google walks softly and makes progress with its Fiber ISP business, it gains more low-level control over the Internet. Shine is ready to help Google's frenemies now, but Google has plans to eventually compete with them and their compatriots head-to-head for high stakes. Does the world really want to cross a Rubicon and suggest that Google would be justified in blocking ads on its ISP network that aren't served by Google? If one can do it, then the logic would follow that others can as well. And then what if Plan A fails? There's always Android. Should Google be given the green light to engineer Android into its own ad-serving platform that could be wholly independent of Google's web properties and unaffected by any HTTP-level interference by enemy ISPs? They certainly have the resources and platform to make that happen.
This European plan is insane and misguided at best. Google is not in the businesses of subsidizing the Internet's network infrastructure. It is essentially the lifeblood of the Internet as it makes digital commerce possible at an awesomely low cost and seemingly infinite scale. The ISPs in Europe and throughout the world are treating Google as a bully-able dependent when actually, being a massive facilitator of international commerce, it won't be the first to fall in this war. Google's business model is structured so that Google's incentives are aligned well with the greater interests of the globe's citizens. What is good for Google is good for business; what is bad for Google is, well, you know. Don't rock the boat.