Technology & Science·Q&A

Online ad fight reaches new level with network-wide block

A cellphone company in the U.K. plans to take ad blockers to the next level with a controversial new technology called Shine. CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains how it works.

Ad blocker Shine partners with U.K. carrier Three to filter ads for all users on the network

Blocking of online ads has reached a new level in the U.K., where the ad blocker Shine has partnered with a mobile company to block all ads for the network's users. (Bloomua/Shutterstock)

Not many people love watching or looking at online ads.

Which is probably why almost 200 million people around the world use ad-blocking software to stop banners and pop-ups.

This June, one cellphone company in the U.K. plans to take ad blockers to the next level, using a controversial new technology called Shine.

CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains how it works.

What is Shine?

Shine is a company that specializes in ad blocking. Their stated mission is to "protect consumers" from what they call "the abusive behaviour" of ad technology.

An ad for the ad blocker Shine, which has recently partnered with the U.K. mobile carrier Three. (
Ad blockers, of course, are nothing new. There have long been browser plugins and smartphone apps that block ads. 

But Shine is different because for users, there's no software to download, no app to install.

It works by partnering directly with the mobile operators. So it's not your phone blocking the ads. It's your cellphone company blocking the ads before they ever reach your phone.

And now, a cellphone network in the U.K. called Three has a deal with Shine. Starting June 13, they're going to run a test of the technology before rolling it out to their entire network later this year.

So essentially, we're talking about the ability to block ads automatically for every customer on a cellphone network.

Why would a carrier want to block ads?

If you ask Three, the company says there are a few reasons they're doing this:

  • One is the user experience. Three says online advertising can be "intrusive, unwanted or irrelevant." I think that's particularly true when we're talking about the relatively small screens on smartphones, and you get full-screen overlays that keep you from reading an article until you tap a tiny little X in the corner. That feels intrusive to me.
  • Second, Three says this is about cost and bandwidth. Ads — particularly video ads — can be quite large. So if you have a cellphone plan with limited data, ads can gobble up a lot of that pretty quickly.
  • Three also says this is about privacy, and that online advertising tracks, targets and profiles users. It argues by blocking ads, there's a privacy win.

So those are the reasons Three says they're using ad-blocking techology. Of course, there may be other reasons, besides the customer-facing benefits.

For instance, we've seen some ad-blocking companies charge advertisers to get "whitelisted" — kind of a pay-to-play scenario where your ad is blocked, unless you pay.

Some ad blockers, like Adblock Plus, let advertisers pay to be put on an 'acceptable ads' list. (
Shine's technology could allow some network operators to become advertising gatekeepers — to charge advertisers to get their messages in front of customers.

To be clear, neither Shine nor Three has said they plan to do this, but it's where my mind immediately went.

What's controversial about Shine's technology?

Part of the concern here is that it's a blunt instrument — all ads are treated equally and all ads are blocked, regardless of their quality.

Reputable ads from well-known companies would be blocked, just the same as scam ads that point to malware and want to steal your data. 

If your cell phone company or internet service provider is blocking ads for you at the network level, users may not have a lot of insight or control over how that works.

And, of course, there's the controversy around ad blocking more broadly. Free content and services online are funded, largely, by advertising. And if a company like Shine makes it possible to block ads without ever having to download or configure a piece of software, that could hurt content creators and online services even more than the 200 million users who already use software like Adblock Plus in their browser.

According to PageFair, an analytics company, ad-blockers cost publishers nearly $22 billion during 2015.

What are the limitations of Shine's approach?

The first limitation is pretty obvious: because Shine blocks ads at the network level, with your cellphone provider, it only works when you're using your cellphone's data connection. If you're at home or at work, and you're using Wi-Fi, you're still going to see ads.

Second, while Shine can block most forms of display advertising — like banners and pop-ups, and overlays — there are certain types of ads it can't block. For instance, it can't block native advertising — like the kind you might see on a site like Buzzfeed, where there's an article sponsored by a brand.

So-called 'native' or 'branded content' advertising wouldn't be blocked by a service like Shine. (CBC)
Finally, ad blocking technology really is a cat-and-mouse game. As ad blocking technology improves, ad display technology improves. There are now a number of companies out there that say they can sneak past ad blockers.

And of course, some websites can now detect if you're using an ad blocker and refuse to show you content. So even if technologies like Shine are adopted by more cellphone operators, there will always be ad companies trying to one-up them.

Will we see ad-blocking like Shine in Canada anytime soon?

Outside of a few partners in the U.K. and Caribbean, Shine won't say who else they're working with, though they've suggested there's been interest in their technology from all around the world.

Here in Canada, of course, we have rules around net neutrality, and it's possible that the ad-blocking technology Shine is proposing could run afoul of those laws.

According to one expert I talked to, if a Canadian cellphone company wanted to do ad blocking at a network level, they would need to get prior approval from the CRTC, and it's difficult to tell how the CRTC would rule on something like that.

We do know that Three is planning to test this technology in the U.K. on an opt-in basis in June. If this technology makes it way to Canadian cellphone operators, it would likely be on an opt-in basis as well.

Needless to say, a lot of people will be watching this roll-out very closely, and I don't think this is the last we've heard of the ad blocking debate.

About the Author

Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.


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