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.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Apr 2017 @ 3:18pm

    Google's taking a big risk with this move. You might even call it an alpha bet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 20 Apr 2017 @ 3:35pm

    I think this would be worthwhile for Google to do, but if they want to head off antitrust problems, they'd have to do it right: set it up in a way that makes it clear that they're not trying to cause problems for competitors.

    IMO this would involve two steps. First, they should open-source it so all of the other ad-blocker developers can examine it, both to ensure that there's nothing bad in there and also so that they can incorporate useful principles into their own work.

    Second, they should make it a discrete feature of the browser. Instead of being just another plugin, "the adblocker" would be A Thing, much like "the default browser" is A Thing in the operating system, and users could affirmatively change their adblocker from Chrome Adblocker to some other adblocker if they wished to do so.

    Taking those two steps would give end-users all the benefits mentioned in the article while leaving competing adblocker developers with no reason to claim antitrust violations IMO.

    (IANAL TINLA)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 20 Apr 2017 @ 11:38pm

      Re:

      ""the adblocker" would be A Thing, much like "the default browser" is A Thing in the operating system"

      Microsoft got into trouble quite a bit for that, if I'm not mistaken. Not that it's a bad thing if done the right way, but much of Microsoft's troubles were because they were abusing their monopoly position to push their browser as a default. It wasn't the offering of a default browser, but the way in which users were uninformed of alternatives and unable to remove the default, at a time when the options were not known by the mainstream.

      In fact, that's really where they have to be careful here. I laugh at most of the suggestions that Google can be in a position to be guilty of antitrust, since they have competitors in every field and it's trivial to switch for the most part. But, while they have the dominant browser and a lot of competitors in the ad-blocking arena, they are in danger of being guilty of abuse here. Especially if it's later discovered that the blocker favours its own ads over its ad competitors.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Mason Wheeler (profile), 21 Apr 2017 @ 8:10am

        Re: Re:

        Especially if it's later discovered that the blocker favours its own ads over its ad competitors.

        This is why they need to release the source. It keeps them accountable and leaves the competition with no excuse to claim they're up to no good.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        The Wanderer (profile), 23 Apr 2017 @ 4:49pm

        Re: Re:

        The way I remember it, part of Microsoft's troubles came in the fact that you *couldn't* entirely remove Internet Explorer, even if you installed another browser and never launched IE at all; it was - and to some extent may well remain, even today - integrated into parts of the underlying graphical shell, as an HTML rendering engine.

        The problem there is that they refused to expose the necessary API surfaces for other people to hook in their own rendering engines in place of the IE one. That may have been reasonable as a security decision (malware hooking in this way could be very bad), but it did result in the can't-remove-IE-from-Windows situation.

        If the Chrome built-in ad blocker is a discrete module, and you can swap in any other API-compatible ad blocker in place of that module - which I think is what is being suggested - then those factors would not seem to apply.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Christenson, 20 Apr 2017 @ 3:36pm

    Anti-Trust High Road

    I think some awesome behavior, in the form of separability and openness here might address the anti-trust concerns.

    That is, Chrome without ad-blocking should be available right next to Chrome with Google ad-blocking. [Hint: I might want to investigate those horrible ads one day! I already know Facebook plays games with what it sends me]

    That is, openly share and license the ad blocker add-on to Chrome.

    That is, allow the world to improve on their offering.

    That is, allow those that have improved on it, on a non-discriminatory basis, to advertise their ad blockers along with the native Chrome ad blocker.

    That is, make the browser *much* harder to "fingerprint". Certain ads follow me around rather peskily.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mason Wheeler (profile), 20 Apr 2017 @ 4:30pm

      Re: Anti-Trust High Road

      make the browser much harder to "fingerprint"

      This is actually very tricky, as the fingerprinting comes by measuring a bunch of things that there are lots of legitimate, non-surveillance-related reasons to want to be able to measure. Thwarting it would basically require causing those APIs to lie, which would break a bunch of web apps.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Bergman (profile), 20 Apr 2017 @ 7:50pm

        Re: Re: Anti-Trust High Road

        Not necessarily.

        Suppose you need 50 units of Resource A to run a particular web app. The computer you on has exactly 5050509673 of that resource. Fingerprint systems will take note of that specific number and use it to identify you -- but what if instead of reporting the exact number, your computer just said "I have more than 50 of A available."

        People can tell their computer to report the exact number or make NO report (not even the "over 50" statement) or anything in between. It could even be variable in what it reports between sessions.

        It would only break those web apps that insist on your computer telling them more than they actually need to know, which they shouldn't be asking in the first place.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TKnarr (profile), 20 Apr 2017 @ 3:37pm

    One mitigation would be to treat it as an extension like any other that just happens to come pre-installed. The first thing you get when you bring up Chrome (or upgrade to a version that includes the blocker) is a tab showing the default state and requiring the user to select their preference or confirm that the defaults are OK.

    Of course, if I were Google I'd make it a 3-way thing: click button 1 to enable Google's blocker, click button 2 to be shown a list of other ad-blocking options and independent reviews of them, or click button 3 if you really truly want to see all ads. But then I'm a bofh.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Apr 2017 @ 3:40pm

    Google will give itself more freedom and less criticism for what are "bad ads" but I'm almost okay with that. The Google Adsense program is quite frankly what every other ad-aggregate should be. Strict rules, stern punishments, but freedom of ad display type/rate/etc. While a perfect internet browsing world involves no ads at all, if I could pick only one company to push ads I'd choose Google over something like Taboola.

    Like I said though, a perfect experience is no ads at all. I'd just rather have well maintained ads everywhere rather than crappy ones.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Doug, 20 Apr 2017 @ 4:21pm

    Where's the market power?

    This would have to be a section 2 violation (because it's a unilateral move). But I doubt Chrome has the market power in the browser market to qualify as a monopoly. Sure, Google probably has market power in the search market, but I don't see that spilling over into browser.

    Maybe I'm missing something, but with Safari, Firefox, and the loathed-but-hugely-successful Explorer out there, I'd say Google can block ads with extreme prejudice on Chrome and get away with it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Apr 2017 @ 4:48pm

      Re: Where's the market power?

      Chrome is pushing 60% of the browser market, nothing else even comes close.

      https://netmarketshare.com/

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Doug, 20 Apr 2017 @ 5:06pm

        Re: Re: Where's the market power?

        That's high, but still probably not the danger zone for Google. Most courts agree "a share significantly larger than 55%" is required to get into Section 2. Lower than that, and the gov't would have to show that Google's practice actually raises the price of its rivals' ads.

        But if Chrome gets much bigger than 60%, I agree Google should put the kibosh on any discriminatory ad-blocking.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Apr 2017 @ 4:24pm

    It's cute that the <paywall>Wall Street Journal</paywall> is calling out another company on bad internet practices.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Apr 2017 @ 5:12am

      Re:

      What do you expect? If too many people use Adblock then publishers need to start charging for content instead of relying on ads. How do people not see the causal relationship? Don't whine about paywalls if you're going to use Adblock

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Thad, 24 Apr 2017 @ 10:59am

        Re: Re:

        What do you expect? If too many sites use intrusive, obnoxious ads that are vectors for malware then users will start using ad blockers. How do people not see the causal relationship? Don't whine about ad blockers if you're going to use unacceptable advertisements.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    discordian_eris (profile), 20 Apr 2017 @ 4:34pm

    It's not about the ads per se. It is entirely about security at this point.

    All text ads with no scripting, images etc are generally safe. Anything else is a security risk. Almost every day there are reports of another ad distribution network being compromised and serving up malware. Basically ALL of them serve up malware periodically.

    As a non-business Internet user I will not allow ads like that on my computer. If I was a business? I would make sure that nothing from an ad network makes it through the firewalls. The risk is too high by far to take the risk. No matter how hard they try, malware makers come up with new tricks that allow them to distribute their wares. Even Google's Double-click serves it up regularly.

    So yes on the adblocking, but I would say that until tested and verified, no on Googles implementation of it. Until then use Adblock Plus or uBlock Origin. Use Ghostery, Privacy Badger and NoScript. It is nonsensical that people will run antivirus software to protect themselves, but then allow malware in through the backdoor.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Matthew Cline (profile), 20 Apr 2017 @ 6:05pm

      Re:

      All text ads with no scripting, images etc are generally safe. Anything else is a security risk.

      Curious: how many exploits can be done with scripting but without plugins?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 20 Apr 2017 @ 6:09pm

        Re: Re:

        "how many exploits can be done with scripting"

        Enough that you should consider having javascript disabled by default.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 20 Apr 2017 @ 7:31pm

        Re: Re:

        Curious: how many exploits can be done with scripting but without plugins?

        If your browser implements its Javascript sandbox correctly and without any security bugs, none. But when was the last time something that complex was free of security bugs, especially when the developers spend their time focusing on features and performance?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Apr 2017 @ 4:52pm

    You're thinking of web browsers as the market (as any sane and honest person would.) But the lawsuits aren't going to be filed by sane or honest people, or even bat-guano-crazy rabid weasels--no, it'll be something much worse. Internet marketers. For them, you are the market, and Google has a large percentage of that market (not, of course, remotely close to a monopoly--but large enough for a BGCRW to allege monopolization. And judges in monopoly cases sometimes forget that the purpose of antitrust legislation is to benefit consumers, not less-efficient predators. So the "little guy" (who makes a few million dollars a month doing unspeakably horrible things to other people's computers and internet download quotas) gets a long hearing rather than a sharp rusty knife in the bowels like he deserves.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Thad, 20 Apr 2017 @ 5:31pm

      Re:

      Google can demand a trial by jury, right? I'm sure that it's been collecting examples of the types of ads it intends to block so it can show them to jurors.

      Still, it seems to me that its best call would be to use a standards body that it wasn't part of itself to determine which kinds of ads were unacceptable.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Apr 2017 @ 5:14pm

    Ads

    I used to admin for a 50,000+ node network.

    I found that of the infections not blocked (eg - the system was compromised and after a few weeks, the virus detection system finally got that signature) that a significant number of the vectors could be traced back to ad networks. This was back in 2000-2010. I also saw a dip in network traffic. I don't know how things stand today because I use script blocking.

    If a site won't render without ads, it's a site I don't need to visit. Yes, I'm looking at CNN and others. Since I've taken this step, I no longer have to reload a windows system every 4 or 5 months to get rid of the crap. Of course, I don't use Windows a lot anymore so there's that too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Thad, 20 Apr 2017 @ 5:43pm

      Re: Ads

      I use NoScript but it's way too much of a hassle for ordinary end users. (For them I'd still recommend uBlock, Privacy Badger, and HTTPS Everywhere.)

      There are a couple of perfectly reasonable steps that browser makers can take to block ads (and indeed have already taken with other browser functions). I've said this stuff before in other threads, but it's worth mentioning again:

      First, treat videos like they currently treat Flash. Do not allow them to auto-play by default. The first time I pull up YouTube, Netflix, or whatever, give me a prompt asking me if I want to play the video. Allow me to select "once" or "always for this site".

      Second, treat modals like they currently treat popups: allow them only if they're triggered by a user click. If a modal opens automatically on page load, or is triggered by a setTimeout() or any other event besides a click, block it. (This will be trickier than blocking popups or videos, but still possible; if an element is absolutely positioned, has a higher z-index than the part of the page where most of the content is, and becomes visible at the same time as a layer with a transparency effect, it's a modal.)

      Third, mobile browsers should straight-up ignore position: fixed.

      Those are all pretty simple steps that I'd like to see browser makers implement. Of course, this is tip-of-the-iceberg stuff. You mention malware, and of course an ad needn't be giant and cover the screen to run some nasty code on the user's machine.

      And Google and Facebook themselves are the biggest purveyors of tracking scripts, which are not opt-in, and fat chance that any organization they belong to will declare that that kind of script is unacceptable.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 20 Apr 2017 @ 5:58pm

        Re: Re: Ads

        >I use NoScript

        Firefox's Reader Mode is great for this. (book icon next to the refresh button)

        Some sites that appear blank or unreadable look great when I enable it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    tracyanne, 20 Apr 2017 @ 9:51pm

    Don't use Chrome

    Won't use Chrome. The Ad and Script blockers I currently use block ALL ads, all of the time, so in the end I don't really care.

    Google does seem in a bit of a bind here though, as they seem to be damned if they do and damned if they don't, but I suppose that's what you get when your business model is based on doing something that people feel is more than a little egregious.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Andrew Cook (profile), 21 Apr 2017 @ 5:32am

    Antitrust didn't seem to be an issue back in 2002, when Netscape implemented popup ad blocking but exempted their own sites, including (hilariously) their own homepage.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Apr 2017 @ 10:45am

    Popup blocker not an adblocker

    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.

    This is false. They block window creation that doesn't result from user interaction, because that annoys and confuses users. The browser doesn't discriminate on source or content: it doesn't matter whether the new window would have contained an ad.

    You could just as well say the settings to disable images or javascript are "ad-blockers".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Apr 2017 @ 11:38am

    This entire piece sounds like Mike wrote it while Daddy Google stood behind him with a knife to his throat.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Thad, 21 Apr 2017 @ 2:23pm

      Re:

      I started to write a joke post about how obviously this article criticizing Google is just more proof that Mike is a paid shill for Google, but I figured someone would be along to write a real one any minute.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Apr 2017 @ 3:54pm

        Re: Re:

        Sounds a lot more like him dancing around trying to avoid being critical of Google, and making excuses for them / implying that we should just trust that they have good intentions along the way.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Thad, 21 Apr 2017 @ 5:03pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Glancing over the comments thread, it sounds like that to exactly one person.

          So answer me this: did you already think Masnick was a Google shill before you read this article, or did you just arrive at that conclusion for the very first time based on reading this article in isolation?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2017 @ 11:34pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Sounds like it's the same conspiracy theorist who's been parroting that Masnick's a shill because a court document by Google briefly mentioned Techdirt at some point. According to him, it suddenly means Masnick is conjoined to Google at the hip.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    David (profile), 21 Apr 2017 @ 5:15pm

    Anti-trust, let the user implement it.

    Provide an interface that let ANY user activate individual ad types/sites based on ads that are arriving in their own experience.

    A list of attributes, with allow/not and completely avoiding the default on/off debate. Apply machine learning as necessary/available **but** make the actual decision based on user input.

    Let the users vote with their eyeballs and Google's wallet. I would definitely try a browser (even Chrome) that let me have this much control.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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