It seemed like a relatively minor piece of news, all things considered. Google, according to a Wall Street Journal report, is thinking about including an ad-blocking feature in the next version of its Chrome browser. Sounds like a handy feature, right?
It may indeed be a handy feature for users. But the closer you look at this news, the worse it gets. Why? Because Google isn't just any browser maker or app company—it's among the world's largest Internet companies. And how does it make the vast majority of its $90 billion in revenue? Advertising.
Why on earth would one of the world's largest ad companies want to implement an ad-blocking service in its browser? Google's answer would no doubt be that it wants to get rid of the bad actors within the digital-advertising market, and ensure users have a good experience.
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This is a worthwhile goal. The web is filled with low-quality ad garbage that clutters up the page, makes websites slow to load, and weighs down the browser with popups and interstitials and other hijacking attempts. Even some ad industry executives applaud ad blocking because it forces publishers and ad networks to confront this problem.
The problem is that Google is hugely conflicted when it comes to fixing this. The browser through which it plans to offer ad blocking has more than 50% of the market, and Google itself owns and operates two of the largest ad networks in the world, DoubleClick and AdSense. Presumably none of those ads would be blocked by this service.
As Cornell Law professor James Grimmelmann noted in a series of tweets about the news, the prospect of Google deciding which ads are acceptable and which aren't is hugely problematic, to the point where such a service might even raise antitrust concerns.
According to the Wall Street Journal, decisions about which ad types would be "unacceptable" or suitable for blocking would be made by the Coalition for Better Ads, an industry group that released a set of standards earlier this year. And who created the group? Google, along with partners from the advertising and media industries including Facebook.
The Journal story also says that the ad-blocking service Google is considering implementing in Chrome would not just disable the offending ads from a site that doesn't meet the group's standards, but could block all of the ads from any site that fails the test.
Even if you dislike intrusive advertising, that's a scorched-earth response to the problem. And it's a response that is being meted out by one of the world's largest advertising companies, through a browser that it controls, based on standards that are being set by a group it helped create, along with several of the world's other major advertising companies.
Google may not feel that it has much to worry about from an antitrust perspective, given the conservative leaning of the current administration. But that doesn't mean we should give the company carte blanche to extend its control over the online advertising market in new directions.