A large ISP that updated its broadband routers to automatically block online adverts has had to abandon its plans after getting into hot water with the French Government.
Paris-based ISP Free reportedly issued a beta firmware update for some of the company’s DSL routers last Wednesday, after which users in some parts of France noticed that ads on a selection of websites were appearing without ads.
The move angered advertising and media groups whose business model depends on ad distribution, prompting them to enlist the help of the French Government to get the filtering reversed.
In a news conference reported by the New York Times, the Government made plain that such blocking was unacceptable and ordered Free to restore access to ad content.
“An Internet service provider cannot unilaterally implement such blocking,” said digital economy minister, Fleur Pellerin in a translated statement. “This kind of blocking is inconsistent with a free and open Internet, to which I am very attached.”
The company would stop blocking ads by the end of play, Monday, she said.
Free’s motivation for the blocking – implemented as an ‘all or nothing’ filter without whitelisting – appears to have been a cack-handed attempt to make clear its unhappiness with the principle of net neutrality.
Put very simply, some ISPs resent being turned into dumb pipes over which companies such Google rake in profits from consumers. Controversially, their answer is to seek to control – or in this case a block - on such services until such time as they can get a cut.
Free has already reportedly complained about the dominance of Google’s Adwords system.
Commenting before the French Government’s intervention, broadband news website was critical of the suddenness of a move which was imposed without consulting the company’s 5.2 million customers.
“This move by Free will remove a large revenue stream for websites in France. If it continues for more than a few weeks, smaller sites with only an online presence may close.”
It [the blocking] will set a precedent for other providers across the EU, and with the size of the online advertising market it has the potential to be very disruptive and not necessarily benefit the consumer,” said Andrew Ferguson.
Consumers can already use PC-based ad blockers if they so wish, although these are usually employed to counter annoying pop-ups. Free's mistake was to believe it had the right to make that choice for its customers.