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Senator Wyden Wants Paid Ad Blocking Whitelists Investigated

from the malleable-integrity dept

For years, journalists have highlighted how ad blocking companies have slowly but surely been compromising their ethics -- and products -- to make an extra buck. Several years ago you'll recall that numerous ad blocking companies were busted letting some companies' ads through their filters if they were willing to pay extra. Others collect and monetize "anonymized" data that's gleaned from what ads you're receiving and which ones you're blocking (recall that studies repeatedly have shown that anonymized data is not at all anonymous).

Enter Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who, this week, sent a letter to the FTC (pdf, hat tip The Verge) urging some greater scrutiny of the sector:

"Hundreds of millions of consumers around the world have downloaded and installed software tools that purport to block online ads. In turn, the largest ad companies--including Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Verizon Media--have quietly paid millions of dollars to some of the largest ad blocking software companies in order to be able to continue to track and target consumers with ads.

Much like VPN companies who promise security and privacy but then hoover up your personal data, it's an erosion of consumer trust to promise a product that's doing the opposite of what it claims while not being transparent about it. While ad blockers are maligned by many sites, they're a natural evolution of the internet's insistence on pushing its luck with terrible, performance and security-eroding ads. So if they're going to be viewed as essential security and privacy tools, Wyden suggests they should be more up front about behavior like this:

"Eyeo, the German company that makes Adblock Plus, operates and "Acceptable Ads" program in which it whitelists advertisers that agree to prohibit pop-ups and other types of annoying ads. Eyeo requires the largest internet advertising companies to pay 30% of their revenue from ad blocking users to be included in this program. In October of 2015, Eyeo announced that it had opened its acceptable ads program to competing ad blockers, enabling competitors to use Eyeo's whitelist and receive payments from the major ad companies. The same day, AdBlock, another popular ad blocker, revealed that it had been sold to an anonymous buyer and would be joining the Acceptable Ads program. AdBlock then automatically "upgraded" millions of AdBlock users, without their affirmative consent, into tracking and targeting by major ad companies that paid to be included in Eyeo's whitelist."

In short what began as a sector responding ethically to the rise in terrible ads has been co-opted by the ad industry itself via cash and consolidation, without being transparent about its "evolving" relationship with advertisers. Wyden suggests the failures of transparency and notification here are likely illegal under federal law, and the sector should be prompted to, at the very least, make these relationships and product limitations clear to the end user.

Filed Under: ad blocking, data, filters, ftc, pay for play, privacy, ron wyden, whitelists

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  1. identicon
    Qwertygiy, 14 Jan 2020 @ 5:35pm

    Same here. I have no problem with optional unobtrusive whitelists that are up-front and honest, but don't change the rules on me and don't go behind my back.

    However, I'm a little unsure on whether or not there could be anything illegal going on here... the case that Senator Wyden cites is about data collection. AdBlock (as far as I am aware) never performed any data collection or transmission. All the trackers and ads that it allows through would receive the same data -- if not more! -- without AdBlock installed. The browser is what sends the data to the webpage. All AdBlock does is decide if some of that data should be stopped.

    Is that too technical a distinction? Does choosing not to censor something make you responsible for its travel? CDA 230 says no, even if you censor other things, you are not responsible for being a passive conduit.

    And it's not like AdBlock could have ever effectively promised to block all ads. The aforementioned uBlock and uMatrix have two defaults. One setting allows half the dirty ads through. The other setting stops 99% of ads -- but also > 50% of the content you do want, until you manually configure it for each website. And some things still do manage to sneak their way past.

    It also feels a little difficult to say that something is anti-competitive market behavior when the market isn't selling anything. Is uploading a bunch of random gibberish tweets with popular hashtags anti-competitive in the social media market because it interferes with the visibility of non-gibberish tweets? What about uploading low-quality Instagram photos with the same description and tags as the hot influencers? (Or, if you want to stipulate that it must be something people download and run instead of view, replace Instagram photos in that sentence with PornHub videos.) All of them are free to the end user, even if some people got paid for the development or promotion of the post.

    I agree that it isn't very nice, but legally punishable? I don't really think so.

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