The Weird Antitrust Questions Of A Google Chrome Ad Blocker
from the i-don't-envy-the-lawyers-here dept
So rumors have started flying that Google is about to build some ad blocker technology into Chrome, that would block ads that the company considers to be “unacceptable ads” — as determined by the “Coalition for Better Ads.” Of course, while a coalition for “better ads” sounds like a good thing, this Coalition for Better Ads has been criticized. It was put together by the biggest companies in the internet ad space, and many worry that it’s just an attempt to whitewash over a lot of bad practices by declaring just the extremely egregious practices as “bad.” Either way, the original report from the paywalled Wall Street Journal notes that the ad blocker might even block all ads on sites that run “bad” ads (i.e., not just the bad ads).
There have been all sorts of reactions to the news of a built-in Chrome ad blocker, but a lot of people are raising the antitrust questions. Obviously, Google is unlikely to consider its own ads to be the “bad ads.” And thus, an official Google ad blocker — especially one that allows its own ads through and is default on its very popular browser — at least raises eyebrows about antitrust issues. There’s a strong argument to be made (and I’m pretty sure that some ad firms would raise this with a court within a day or so of such an ad blocker being released) that this is an anti-competitive move to suppress competing ad firms.
But… then again, there’s the fact that lots and lots of people (quite reasonably!) hate ads. And a system to block “bad” ads is a pretty clear consumer benefit (which I imagine would be Google’s key defense). And, of course, Chrome (and other browsers) have had a form of ad blocker for ages already in that they block pop up/pop under ads. So it could be argued that this kind of thing is already done, and how different is this?
Of course, there might also be a more nuanced antitrust claim — that this is an attempt to destroy the business of other ad blockers that are more aggressive in blocking ads — including Google’s ads. The argument there is that by offering a built-in ad blocker that handles the worst of the worst ads, users are less likely to install the optional more comprehensive ad blockers, thus protecting Google’s ad business. That’s one that Google may have a much tougher time with.
Still, it does seem… tricky, to think that by providing users with a better default experience, that might also mean antitrust problems. That, of course, is where things always get tricky around antitrust issues like this one. Improving life for consumers is good… but doing so in a way that leverages a dominant position that potentially harms other ad blockers… is almost certainly going to lead to a lot of lawyers making a lot of money. But it also puts Google in a difficult position if its goal really is to stop bad advertising (and I know some will insist that’s not Google’s goal at all — but just assume that it is and figure out what can Google actually do here?). Just as in some of the search antitrust cases, where sites with bad content were pushed down the rankings and sued (and lost… but still impacted some antitrust investigations), it becomes tougher to actually take steps to improve the web browsing experience for users.
If I were in Google’s shoes I’m not sure I’d go through the trouble of doing this, even if it would help in other ways. With so many folks gunning for the company these days, it seems like it’s going to be costly in fending off antitrust challenges.