French ISP blocks online ads by default – just a beta feature glitch?

One of the largest ISPs in France, Free, pushed out an update to its FreeBox routers this week. And they kind of broke the web with this one – or at least one of its primary funding models.

The update got pushed out on Wednesday, with one of its new features being a beta ad-blocker. And, according to multiple apoplectic sources, the ad-blocker is turned on by default, once the user resets their set-top box.

As the Rude Baguette blog has noted, savvy users can switch the whitelist-free ad-blocking service off through the online FreeBox management portal. Others have also pointed out that the ad-blocking doesn’t actually work very well, although it is partially effective (that’ll be why they call it a beta version then). There’s also the fact that many people already employ ad-blocking plugins on the client side.

Just to be as fair as possible to Free here, it’s not yet clear whether the ISP actually meant to have the feature turn itself on as a default – again, betas are buggy. I’ve also asked Free for comment, without success.

So, assuming that this was an intentional move… wow. The irony of the situation is just stunning. For this is the same Free that is being investigated by the French telecoms regulator over its alleged treatment of YouTube traffic.

If Free really is intentionally degrading or blocking YouTube – a matter for the regulator ARCEP to determine – then its actions are one of the clearest violations yet of the net neutrality principle. And why do ISPs violate net neutrality? Generally because they either want to throttle a competitor to their own services, or they want to use traffic degradation as leverage in their ongoing quest to get high-volume traffic sources to pay them money.

And how do high-volume traffic sources make money? Uh, advertising, which is still pretty much the lifeblood of the online content industry, at least for now. It’s too early to draw conclusions about what’s intended here, but the fallout of Free’s new beta feature should be quite entertaining to watch.