The unassuming rectangular box that you’re seeing can, in some ways, be thought of as a time machine.
Its inventors, Chad Russell and Charles Butkus, conceived of the device as a way for users to surf web pages without being inundated by the proliferation of advertisements, reminiscent of how people experienced it in the good old early days of the internet. “The idea started as a casual conversation with a friend about how cluttered the internet had become,” says Russell. “These days not only do you have banner ads, but also video commercials and advertising embedded into you mobile apps. They’re everywhere.”
After testing several hacked “Linux boxes” as prototypes, the duo came up with AdTrap, a mini-computer that connects to both your router and modem, and functions as an advertising firewall. The final product was designed to be entirely hardware-based so that it automatically removes all ads without the need for installed software or configuration. Simply plug it in and the low-powered machine instantly blocks out display ads, app-based ads and even the type of video ads commonly programmed into your favorite YouTube videos. And, it enables users to do this on every one of their devices.
“The unique thing about AdTrap is that it is run on a full web server, so it has better ad blocking abilities than just software,” Russell says. “And the ability to prevent video commercials from rolling is a new innovation, which I believe makes it interesting.”
Only a month after launching a funding campaign in November on the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter, Russell and his development team at the Palo Alto-based security software startup Bluepoint Security well exceeded their fundraising goal, finishing with $213,392 worth of seed money.
Since the simple days of text, photos and links, online advertising has become big business, essentially subsidizing much of what exists on the web. Data from the Interactive Advertising Bureau reveals that a record $20 billion was spent on advertising in the first half of this year alone, doubling the amount spent in 2007.
Third party solutions designed to combat this intrusive trend isn’t anything new. Popular browser plug-ins like AdBlock Plus have been widely available for a a few years now, and fundamentally, AdTrap employs many of the same strategies. But the mere fact that users can put in place such comprehensive ad filtering, and do it with such ease, can, in the long run, pose a substantial threat to the main source of revenue for a vast percentage of major publications (not to mention Silicon Valley stalwarts such as Facebook and Google).
As the project has rolled ahead (shipment began in August), Russell has yet to receive a single legal challenge or even stir up any complaints. He isn’t at all surprised since he sees the device as neatly falling into the same category as other widely-accepted means of filtering internet content, such as firewall security systems and parental control software like NetNanny. He also doesn’t think of the project as a means of waging war on advertising.
“We are not against ads,” says Russell. “The main problem with the way a lot of advertisements work nowadays is that they encroach upon people’s privacy by collecting data on their online activity, which many prefer outside parties not to have. Basically, internet users are paying for content by trading in their private information.”
Russell is hardly alone in working towards developing alternatives that would help users protect their privacy. Recently, a team of former Google employees figured out a way to buck their former employers by releasing Disconnect search, a free browser plug-in that prevents search engines such Google, Bing and Yahoo from keeping tabs on your search habits. The uprising against the long arm of marketing has reached a level where Russell says that even advertisers are fearing broader ramifications on the industry as a whole.
In fact, he mentioned that the company has begun negotiating with a small number of prominent firms to formulate a model that just might work better for all parties involved. For example, a few of the discussions have revolved around a potential opt-in system that gives users the choice to allow for ads from certain parties in exchange for a small payment. The advantage for sellers, he explains, is the potential to receive more individual attention from audiences without having them become annoyed by the sheer barrage of flashing click bait.
Even so, there are still other pressing concerns. Like, for instance, what if the technology eventually takes off? Would the internet, as a whole, suffer? Will it lead to sites cutting back on content, or might cash-strapped outlets resort to producing cheaper, lower-quality content?
Russell argues that online publishers need to continue evolving as they’ve always been. He points out that other media entities, like Pandora, have shifted to giving users a choice between having to listen to ads and the option of a commercial-free paid subscription.
“Listen, I wouldn’t like to see every site put up a paywall either,” says Russell. “But when you rely solely on advertising, it’s almost like you’re saying content isn’t worth anything. People should be allowed other means to subsidize content. If you’re against that, it makes me wonder what the value of that content is in the first place.”