It’s finally happening: on February 15, 2018, Google’s Chrome browser will block some ads out-of-the-box, regardless of whether you have a separate ad blocker installed.
That means Google, the web’s biggest advertising company, will start deciding which ads do and don’t get blocked in your browser. Should users be happy about this, or apprehensive about what Google is up to?
Something Like This Was Necessary
Google isn’t blocking all ads: just the ones on sites that “misbehave.” In the blog post announcing the change, Google stated they will block all ads on sites with a certain amount of ads that violate standards from the Coalition for Better Ads. The Coalition includes tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, alongside media organizations including The Washington Post and Reuters. Together, they’ve built a list of ad types they consider unacceptable. Anyone who uses the web regularly should recognize the culprits: popups, auto-playing video ads with sound, and others will be blocked:
All of these ads are terrible, and the mobile incarnations are arguably even worse:
These kinds of ads make browsing the web miserable, and we’d all be better off if they went away. But it’s unlikely that publishers would make this decision unilaterally: such ads pay well, and that extra money is hard to resist for media organizations already struggling to get by.
So Google has decided to force the issue.
As of February 15, Chrome’s desktop and mobile versions will block all ads on any site that uses these sorts of advertisements. It’s hard to overstate how devastating this will be for sites that are blocked: Chrome is used by over 60 percent of desktop and mobile users. Publishers have had almost a year to make sure their site fits the standard, and this is some serious motivation for them to do so.
It’s easy to see the upside of this development. You, as a user, will be able to browse the web without seeing these horrible ads—either sites will get rid of them, or they’ll be blocked. Without some kind of intervention, these sorts of ads would only become even more common, making the internet worse for everyone.
But there’s also a potential downside. Google, the world’s biggest advertising company, will block ads to control behavior on sites they don’t own. Whatever you think about Google, that’s a lot of power.
This Isn’t Entirely Unprecedented
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Major tech companies have always changed browsers in order to shape the web in their image, and the results have often been positive.
Apple, for example, famously didn’t support Flash on the iPhone, a decision that arguably gave us the HTML5 powered Internet we all enjoy today. Early pop up blockers, bundled in Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer, undoubtedly hurt revenue for media organizations in the early 2000s, but they also made the web a lot less stressful to use (popups are a lot less common now than they were back then). More recently, High Sierra’s tracking prevention deletes cookies regularly to reduce online tracking.
Google has also acted in similar ways in the past. Chrome already blocks automatic audio ads, for example, and has disabled Flash by default for a while now.
It’s easy to see Chrome’s upcoming ad blocker as similar to all of these changes: a simple tweak they can make in order to improve the web for users.
But that’s not the only reason Google is doing it.
The Market Force Awakens
Google gives a lot of things away. Chrome and Android, for example, are freely available for anyone who wants them. But Google isn’t a charity. Whatever blog posts and press releases say, everything Google does is motivated by the bottom line, a trait they share with every other for-profit company.
Google’s software is insanely popular, but they don’t make money. Google has basically one revenue stream: their near total dominance of online advertising.
Ad blocking software like Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin has threatened that revenue. Every user who installs an ad blocker is a user that’s not making money for Google, and ad blocking has become much more common in no small part because the ads on websites have become so annoying.
By punishing sites that use these terrible ads, Google likely hopes to stem the tide of users installing ad blockers. And Chrome’s dominance gives Google this power.
Should Google Be Trusted With This Power?
Google is setting a precedent with this change. Now, Google will decide which sites do and do not get revenue from Chrome users. Instead of blocking only these specific ads, Chrome will block all ads on any offending site. The specific reason for this may be beneficial for consumers in the short term, but what’s to stop Google from abusing this power later?
The recent Amazon/Google feud over streaming set-top boxes shows Google is willing to leverage dominant platforms in order to settle scores with other technology companies—even if consumers are hurt in the process. The upcoming ad blocker in Chrome gives Google the ability to cripple the revenue of any online rival, instantly. Is it far fetched to believe they might use that power in some future feud?
It may sound alarmist, but it’s worth thinking about. Something like this was necessary. These ads needed to be stopped. But whatever you think about Google, this means Google has even more power to shape the web in their image. How you feel about that depends on how much you trust Google’s old motto: “don’t be evil”.