Web publishers following the tech headlines this week could be forgiven if they were found rubbing their hands with excitement at the thought of reclaiming revenue lost through ad blocker adoption. Whilst headlines proclaiming that Google may “kill” or “destroy” ad blockers are no-doubt good for that news sources own ad revenue, they are more than a little misleading.
So why the excitement? Chrome, together with a growing list of other browsers, is based on the open-source Chromium browser. There have been changes proposed to Chromium that would indeed affect how some ad blockers work. If the changes become reality those ad blockers would need to change the way they function if they want to continue to be useful to their users. Others, including the marketing leader AdBlock Plus, would not be affected.
Most of the press around this seems to have been stirred up by comments from the authors of one or two of the affected ad blockers up in arms that their livelihood would be affected by this change. Publishers, who’s own livelihoods have been impacted by these products may not be overly sympathetic to this argument, particular as it comes from some of the most aggressive “Block everything by default” blockers.
What is actually changing?
A change has been proposed that would impact some browser extensions that change the content of the page the user is viewing. This includes, but is far from limited to, ad blockers. Some of these extensions currently use Chromium’s webRequest API to intercept network requests so that they can be blocked, modified or redirected. There are good reasons to do that, but giving an extension blanket permissions to alter any such request also presents a significant security challenge. It can also cause unwanted slow-downs in the browsing experience. The proposal is to change this API so that it can read, but not modify those requests. A new declarativeNetRequest API would also be added, that allows the browser (rather than the extension directly) to affect those requests. Extensions would still be able to block requests, but would need to declare in advance how this will be done.
The proposed change is part of a push to improve security, privacy and performance.
Is this Google protecting its own ad business?
Those riling against the changes are quick to call this an example of Google protecting it’s own ad business. The makers of Ghostery are even threatening to file an anti-trust action. It’s probably right to be skeptical when the world’s largest ad company pushes changes that might impact ad-blockers, but this is hardly Google breaking new ground. When Apple made similar changes to the in 2015 they were generally hailed as a positive move for the end user and there is certainly no shortage of ways to block ads on Apple devices.
The difference of course is that Google earns most of its revenue from advertising. Much of the argument that Google has ulterior motives for these changes centre on its participation with the Acceptable Ads Initiative. Some of the ad blockers that would not be affected by this change have the option for users to allow “acceptable ads”. These include those shown on Google search, giving Google a direct incentive to support any move that encourages users of ad blockers to use a blocker that allows such ads. The reality though is that the “hardline” blockers that treat every ad as something to be quashed make up a tiny proportion of blocked impressions and wouldn’t justify such a move.
When will these changes come into effect?
The proposed changes are still being discussed. Those with an interest in ensuring the status-quo are doing a good job of stirring up press coverage or what is in essence quite a obscure technical debate at a time when Google would probably prefer not to start another debate around privacy. The aim of this is clearly to see the proposed changes scrapped or altered (effectively putting the needs of adblocking companies before the user). This could happen. There are already signs that Google could be softening its position, but it seems likely that changes centred on performance, privacy and security will become reality even if in a modified form.
What is your take? Sly move by Google or melodrama from the “block everything” crowd? Let us know in the comments below.