French ISP Blocked Ads, Apparently to Protest Against Excessive Use of its Pipes by Google

When the French ISP Free offered its users this month the option to entirely opt-out of advertising, some reacted with glee while others pointed out the danger such a move may represent for net neutrality and for the Web as we know it, where most of the content is free to view.

This move also reminded us that ISPs have the power to effectively police the content of what is viewed on the Internet, as Free was filtering content sent through its pipes. Advertising is commercial speech, but it is speech nevertheless. In this case, however, the ISP merely gave the technical option to all its individual users to opt out entirely of receiving advertisements. Blocking was enacted by default, and the users could opt out of the blocking.

France’s Minister of digital economy, Fleur Pellerin, when interviewed on the subject by the daily newspaper Le Figaro, made the argument that “if a user retains effective control, it is difficult to say that there is violation of net neutrality.”

The legality of blocking all ads is also questioned. On January 4, the ARCEP, the Autorité de Régulation des Communications Électroniques et des Postes (ARCEP), the French telecommunications and posts regulator, published a press release on its web site which stated that the ARCEP was

mindful of the conditions of implementing this scheme and of whether it is legal to implement it under the laws of electronic communications. To this end, the Director General of the ARCEP, has sent today a letter to [Free], to question the purpose and the details of the arrangements put in place. [Free]’s response is expected by the middle of next week.”

From a consumer point of view, being able to block ads has some positive aspects. A Free customer was able, if only for a few days, to browse the Web without having to look at advertisements. However, the opt-out option was a “Love me or Leave me” type, and provided no granularity, such as, for example, ads for cheap air tickets, yes, but ads for fast weight loss, no.

It seems that Free chose to block all advertisements in order to make the point that Google should have to share some its advertising revenues with Free, in order to contribute to financing the technical updates needed to the ISP’s infrastructure, resulting from the fact that sites such as Google’s YouTube are using a lot of Free’s bandwidth. Xavier Niel, Free’s CEO, said in an interview with the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur that the “pipes between Google and [Free] are full at certain times of the day, and each pushes to the other the responsibility to add pipes.”

However, in her interview with Le Figaro, Fleur Pellerin was careful to state that nothing allows saying that these two issues are linked. However, it seems that the Minister was not against Google contributing financially to maintaining the Internet infrastructure.

On January 7, Fleur Pellerin spoke in front of the press about the issue of blocking, and stated that she had asked Free to stop blocking advertisements. She said that “the way Free acted is not acceptable.”

Indeed, if Free would have continued to block access to all advertisements, content providers would have faced a loss of revenue. We know by now that it is the advertisements we see on our screens while browsing which finance the sites we can access free of charge.

Free stopped blocking ads on January 7, but the debate on “Who must finance the pipes” is likely to go on in 2013.