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Google Is Going Ahead With Controversial Ad Blocking Plans For Chrome

Jun 02, 2017

Google has confirmed that it intends to add a new feature to its Chrome web browser that will block certain types of ads from being seen by users, and in some cases could block all the ads on websites that don't meet certain standards.

The Alphabet subsidiary says it wants to work with publishers to help them understand what kinds of ads will no longer be acceptable, and the standards being built into the browser come from an industry group rather than Google. But that hasn't stopped some from criticizing the idea, since Google controls a significant share of the online ad market.

Word of the new feature first emerged in April, when the Wall Street Journal reported that Google had approached some publishing partners about its plans.

At the time, Cornell Law professor James Grimmelmann said that the idea of an ad blocker controlled by one of the world's largest digital-advertising companies was almost certain to raise anti-competitive concerns.

In a nutshell, Chrome will now include ad-blocking features that are turned on by default (although Google prefers to call it "filtering" rather than blocking). Ads that meet certain annoying criteria will not be shown, and if a website crosses a certain threshold of substandard ads, users won't see any ads.

Some of the ad types that will be blocked include pop-ups, videos that auto-play, and so-called "pre-stitial" ads that force readers to sit through a count down before they can see the page's contents. Many leading publishers rely on some or all of these strategies to boost ad revenue.

To try to soften the blow somewhat, Google is also offering something called Funding Choices, which allows publishers to show users a note when their ads are blocked by third-party software. The note will give readers the option of either disabling their blocker or buying an ad-free pass or subscription of some kind for that site.

Google reportedly pays Eyeo, the German company that owns AdBlock—the leading ad-blocking software—to have its ads automatically whitelisted, so they are not blocked.

The company notes that the standards for what will be considered acceptable advertising under its new Chrome system have been developed by the Coalition for Better Ads, an industry group that includes advertisers and industry groups, media companies such as News Corp., as well as Google and Facebook.

The appeal of such a feature for users and publishers is obvious. The web has become a sea of popups, pop-unders, interstitials, auto-playing videos and other annoying behavior, and growing numbers of users have responded by installing ad-blocking software like AdBlock. That causes publishers to lose revenue, which leads to even more desperate behavior.

However, some media companies argue that they have no choice but to rely on these kinds of ads, because the bulk of the advertising business has been sucked up by Google and Facebook.

According to a recent estimate by Pivotal Research, not only do the two digital giants control over 75% of the $70-billion U.S. digital ad industry, last year they accounted for almost all of the industry's growth compared to 2015.

Not only that, but Google's Chrome browser has an estimated 58% share of the browser market. Other smaller players such as Internet Explorer and Firefox have built-in ad blockers, but they aren't owned by advertising companies.

So in effect, what Google is rolling out is a system that will block ads by default for a majority of web users, based on standards that it and Facebook—two companies that control the bulk of the online advertising business—have a huge amount of control over.

Will it improve the web for users? Probably. But at the same time, it raises some significant questions about the extent of Google's power over the advertising we see, and its increasing dominance when it comes to how publishers and media companies can make money.

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