Apple’s New Browser Blocks Auto-Playing Videos, Disables User Tracking

June 5, 2017, 8:20 PM UTC

Most of the people watching Apple’s annual developer conference on Monday were probably interested in what its new products can do. But at least some of the interest in Apple’s latest version of its Safari browser was based on what it doesn’t do.

In a nutshell, a new version of Apple’s Safari for Mac’s new High Sierra operating system won’t display auto-playing videos on websites, something many web users hate. And it won’t allow websites to track users as they move across the web either.

These new features may put Apple on users’ good side, since both auto-playing videos and user-tracking are seen as annoying and intrusive. But publishers and media companies aren’t likely to greet these new additions with open arms, and neither are advertisers.

Apple senior vice president Craig Federighi said the upcoming version of Safari will block auto-play videos and will feature what he called “intelligent tracking prevention,” which will keep websites from tracking your browsing data. “Now your browser history is your own,” he said.

Apple’s moves come on the heels of an announcement from Google that the next version of its Chrome web browser—which has about 60% of the market—will block certain ad types by default, including auto-playing video ads. In some cases, websites that have a lot of low-quality ads would have all their ads blocked, not just the ones that breach Google’s rules.

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In Google’s case, the fact that the company is one of the world’s largest advertising businesses and Chrome is the leading browser by market share makes some publishers and advertisers nervous. Some legal experts have even raised the possibility that it might breach anti-trust rules.

Although the search giant points out that the definition of which ads are acceptable comes from an independent industry group called the Coalition for Better Ads, some believe that the default blocking of certain ads puts too much power in Google’s hands.

Apple doesn’t have a huge digital advertising business the way Google does, and its browser is the third or fourth player in the market based on recent estimates. So it would be harder to make the case that Apple’s choice to not show auto-playing videos is anti-competitive.

That said, however, Apple has a large and powerful user base, and the fact that it is using that power to remove certain forms of advertising—and tools that advertisers and publishers use, such as user tracking—is bound to set off alarm bells in the industry.

Although it is a small player in relative terms, Apple sparked much of the current outcry about ad-blocking software when it made iOS 9 compatible with third-party ad blockers in 2015.

Ad-blocking in general, on both the desktop and mobile web, has been growing rapidly over the past couple of years, according to industry surveys. Users on mobile devices in particular are not happy with the time-consuming and intrusive ads that many sites rely on to make money.

Publishers, meanwhile, argue that they have no choice but to use these annoying features, because Google and Facebook have taken over so much of the digital-advertising market.

According to one industry analyst, the two companies combined have about 75% of the $70-billion U.S. digital advertising market, and between the two of them, they accounted for virtually all of the growth in the industry last year.

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