Now Another U.K. Carrier Is Eyeing Mobile Ad Controls

U.K. carrier O2 is the latest tech firm to throw its hat into the ad-blocking ring, telling Business Insider it’s actively testing a technology that can block mobile ads at the network level.

“We are absolutely looking at [network-level ad blocking] technology,” O2’s managing director of digital commerce Robert Franks told BI. “We are looking at these technologies to see if they can help our customers with some of the bad practices and disruptive experiences that are happening.”

Franks’ comments follow news that emerged on Sunday, with the CEO of U.K. carrier EE revealing it is conducting a strategic review of whether it should offer users more controls over mobile advertising.

“We think it’s important that, over time, customers start to be offered more choice and control over the level and intensity of ads on mobile. For EE, this is not about ad blocking, but about starting an important debate around customer choice, controls and the level of ads customers receive,” Olaf Swantee told the Sunday Telegraph.

Israeli/U.S. startup Shine claims to be the only company that can offer network level ad blocking. A spokesman for the company declined to confirm whether it’s in talks with O2, telling TechCrunch: “We don’t comment on commercial discussions. Our customer will announce when they’re ready.”

Asked if it is in discussions with EE, the Shine spokesman added: “We’re in discussions with many carriers, including European. But I can’t comment on specific ones.”

The startup has been on a PR offensive to drive carrier interest in its ad-blocking tech in recent months, taking out ads in the Financial Times in September arguing that mobile users are subsidizing a billion-dollar mobile ad industry by having to pay for the mobile data required to service the ads. And calling for mobile operators to zero rate ads — thereby pressurizing carriers to get involved in the ad blocking debate…

As mobile ads get more intrusive, invasive and gobble up more mobile data, something clearly has to give. And it looks like carriers are starting to consider a stick-based approach to try to rein in some of the ad industry’s excesses.

Better that, they are presumably calculating, than losing out on revenue by zero rating ads and subsidizing the mobile ad industry themselves. Especially given how unpopular increasingly invasive mobile ads are with mobile users. If carriers implement ad controls well, that could lead to added customer loyalty from a popular service offering.

At the time of writing O2, which is a U.K. subsidiary of global carrier Telefonica, had not responded to specific questions about its ad blocking plans, such as when it might be looking to implement ad controls for users. But according to BI its focus here is on three main complaints — namely: poor targeting, poor creative, and ads that are data heavy.

As with EE, it does not appear O2 is about to offer users a blanket block on all mobile advertising, with Franks telling BI the carrier views the debate as about needing to raise the quality of mobile ads and avoid ads being a “terrible experience” for mobile users.

“It is not in an advertisers’ interest to spam customers or do things to create a terrible experience. If the way to raise the bar is to look at these [ad blocking] technologies, whether through a mobile network, or a combination of apps and browser extensions as Apple is doing to address some of the behaviors these [ad tech] intermediaries are executing, I think that’s fine. But I don’t see it as a polarized debate between ‘do you have advertising or don’t you have advertising’,” he said.

Shine’s spokesman notes its ad blocking technology can also work on fixed lined connections — which could enable it to be used to block ads over Wi-Fi networks too. Albeit any carriers implementing ad blocking controls would only be able to offer their users controls over how/which ads are seen while they are browsing on any Wi-Fi hotspots they specifically operate, as well as their cellular connection. Once a user switches to a third party Wi-Fi network the controls would not apply.

Update: O2 has now responded to our questions about its plans, noting that it has not yet committed to implement ad blocking and is continuing to investigate multiple options at this stage — including whether to offer a blanket block for all ads.

“We are looking at this area with interest from various standpoints.  We are not yet looking at specific products or capabilities, but rather reviewing the market and what is happening,” a spokesperson said. “There are several options open in this space which we are keen to learn about. No decisions have been made at this level.”

In terms of the main complaints it is hearing and talking to the ad industry about, the spokesperson had this to say: “Generally speaking we see complaints about ads not being targeted enough, being data heavy, being creatively poor and being interruptive to the content being viewed at the time.”

“There are privacy concerns generally around many ad tech businesses, as well as privacy concerns with many ad blocking businesses.  Our primary priority will always be to O2 customers, and protecting their data,” he added.

Since May this year O2 has fully owned Weve — originally a joint-venture mobile marketing and payments initiative, along with EE and Vodafone. Weve is now entirely focused on mobile marketing. The spokesperson pointed to its “permission based” (i.e. opt in) model and “first party data” as a informing its thinking about the kind of ads and ad targeting that is appropriate for the mobile space.

“Weve only markets to permission based customers using unique first party data from O2. This ensures that marketing is only served to verified customers and our best in market data allows Weve to only serve relevant marketing communications,” said the spokesperson.

“There is an industry drive towards the use of first party data and Weve is definitely at the forefront of this in the mobile market space. We are also specifically focused on improving the quality of the advertising received and have invested in an in-house creative team at Weve to drive best practise in the industry.”