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
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jan 2020 @ 6:35am


    AdBlock (as far as I am aware) never performed any data collection or transmission

    The article seems to say it does, though it's not 100% clear.

    It also feels a little difficult to say that something is anti-competitive market behavior when the market isn't selling anything.

    SCOTUS has said that growing a substance for your own personal use within your state counts as "interstate commerce", because it affects the market. It's kind of the basis for the (federal) drug war. So, there's precedent.

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