Econet could be making advertisers an offer they can’t refuse
Recently, African telecoms Group Econet Wireless announced its partnership with Shine Technologies, an Israeli ad blocking company that provides mobile network operators with network level ad blocker solutions.
Shine and Econet’s proposition is simple – they want to provide subscribers with an ad-free internet experience that will limit the amount of data used to access websites bloated with adverts while securing subscribers’ privacy and offering a faster internet experience.
All things being fair, this is is a brilliant proposition for subscribers and it will likely provide a better service experience for Econet broadband subscribers. By Shine’s estimates, this could reduce broadband cost by as much as 40% for Econet subscribers.
However, there are other perspectives to this deal that haven’t been given as much attention as they should.
Tucked away in Econet’s plans to deliver a better web experience there are risks of major regulatory violations as well as the unethical application of technology under the guise of protecting subscribers.
How is ad blocking a bad thing?
There’s been a serious debate around ad blocking for a while now, stirred by arguments for the preservation of advertising because it provides internet content creators a way of monetising their efforts while providing their content essentially for free.
That is a serious concern especially for content creators that won’t be able to easily adopt new revenue models which could affect some services we have come to enjoy “for free”(at the cost of paying through the viewing of adverts).
As much as this is the primary form of disruption that Econet’s deal with Shine is bringing, it’s just one of the issue that this ad blocking deal creates.
One thing that Econet and Shine neglected to highlight is how ad blocking partnerships with Shine have also been sold on the basis of the revenue stream that mobile operators can create from blocked adverts.
Any advertiser that wants to reach the subscribers using an operator that has blocked ads has to pay the mobile operator for the privilege to do so.
This has been the case with Shine’s previous arrangements with two other telecoms groups – Three Group in Europe and Digicel in the Carribean and its part of the company’s business model.
The arrangement has been heavily criticized by the advertising industry with some officials like Randall Rothenberg the president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) referring to the practice as the theft of money from advertisers and publishers which is diverted “into the pockets of giant cell phone carriers.”
Econet hasn’t mentioned any plans to make advertisers play for the access to its subscribers. The telecoms company is still to respond to our request for clarification or comment on this.
However, in light of the strides that the operator is making to create additional revenue streams, it’s hard to imagine that the plans it has with Shine aren’t focused on the same outcome.
This is especially since Econet is well placed to do so. With a hold on over 70% of broadband subscribers in Zimbabwe, advertising to Zimbabweans who are using an Econet connection is a sure way of accessing the majority of Zimbabweans online.
Anyone planning on an online advertising campaign will have to consider paying Econet for the privilege to access this market and the fact that it’s a privilege is where it becomes extortionist in nature.
It’s almost as if operators that adopt this model (which Econet is likely to do as well) are offering subscribers Mafia style protection from irritating and costly ads while making revenue for themselves by forcing advertisers to pay for access to the subscribers.
Net neutrality issues & the regulatory concerns
Assuming, though, that Econet does forego all plans to monetise this arrangement there are also some regulatory concerns around this service, the first being that any form of ad blocking violates net neutrality.
This principle has often been overlooked by Zimbabwean mobile operators who have violated it time and again through services like biNu, Over the Top bundles and in Econet’s case through zero-rated services like Ownai.
In any case, it’s still a major concern since Econet’s ad blocking is effectively creating an unfair delivery of broadband services.
When someone accesses the internet they shouldn’t be given a scaled down version of it, neither should there be content that has a lower priority set or determined by the internet provider.
It’s something that our own telecoms regulator, POTRAZ, ought to police, ensuring that every internet provider is not selling access to the internet in parcels or with parts of it missing.
In the case of Digicel’s adoption of ad blocking, this violation of net neutrality has already been flagged by industry regulators in some of the markets where Digicel operates, indicating how active regulation shouldn’t just sign off on such a major change to how we consume the internet.
There’s also the case of how network level ad blocking has been viewed by other regulators as a potentially illegal service.
The same regulators that raised concerns about Digicel’s net neutrality violations also highlighted how the service could also be illegal because of the way it intercepts communications meant for subscribers.
Whatever happened to freedom of choice?
Econet has also mentioned that it will roll out ad blocking automatically without giving subscribers the option to opt in as has been the case in the other markets where Shine has partnered with mobile operators.
This isn’t illegal but it surely deserves some form of attention because of one simple principle – it denies subscribers of choice.
Considering that this is no minor tweak to how consumers access internet content, Econet should at least given subscribers the right to choose whether or not they want the ad blocking service.
Subscribers are paying to access the internet, they shouldn’t be robbed of the choice of what they want to see and what they’d rather have blocked.
It’s also worth noting that as much as advertising has been bastardised by a model that delivers a lot of its content in an irritating manner with costs associated with data consumption, it is still an important way of raising product and service awareness.
Some subscribers benefit from it and they have a right o decide whether or not they give up such content.
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