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. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 14 Jan 2020 @ 3:39pm

    And that’s why I switched to the uBlock Origin/uMatrix combo.

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

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jan 2020 @ 3:59pm

    Next you'll be telling me that my free Antivirus from kajeckastan is really just a keylogger stealing all my personal info while pretending to find malware and virii...

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

  3. icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 14 Jan 2020 @ 4:24pm

    Re:

    I have the uBlock Origin/uMatrix, but until a few minutes ago I also had AdBlockPlus. Thank you Techdirt (and I guess Senator Ron Wyden) for letting us know about this debacle.

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

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jan 2020 @ 4:49pm

    A lot of people don't like ad-blocking business models. I'm of the opinion that having someone cut up a newspaper for you before you read it will always be acceptable as free press or fair use.

    Wyden usually has good ideas about why he does stuff though.

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

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jan 2020 @ 4:59pm

    Re:

    Thanks for the tip. I have been meaning to look into a new ad blocker and your post motivated me. I just installed Ublock Origin and wow. Just on this page alone Adblock blocked 1 ad, Ublock = 5. WOW.

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

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jan 2020 @ 5:24pm

    Re:

    When the ad-blocking business model changes to allow ads in return for money, they are no longer an ad-blocking business and people will act accordingly.

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

  7. 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.

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

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jan 2020 @ 6:32pm

    Is now a good time to mention...

    ... NoScript?

    Block all Javascript, all the time, control over your black and white lists, yadda yadda yadda.

    Admittedly, I use both Firefox (with NoScript) and Chrome (without) for when I just have to Let It Go.

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

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Jan 2020 @ 11:09pm

    Re:

    I long ago learned about AdBlock and it's whitelist. At the same time I learned about Ublock Origin. At that time I dumped AdBlock for Ublock and refused to use AdBlock any more for the reason of the white list.

    That and NoScript is a must on any computer. I've been places before where those that saw ads got trashy 3rd party ads that gave them malvertising. Not seeing those ads meant I remained without it while those that saw the ads received.

    I will continue to block ads until the ad industry cleans up it's act. At present you can not tell the ones that will give you malvertising from those that won't. Since getting that requires time on my part cleaning my system, so does the cure for it reside with me. I'll block all ads. If a site doesn't want me to see their content without opening my security, then I don't want to see it. Their content is not that valuable to me to do so.

    Everyone wants you to see their ads till you get malvertising. Suddenly they don't want to talk to you to deal with the issues they gave you when you receive such. They are not going to offer you any sort of cleaner. It's your problem then. My time is worth more to me than seeing their ads are. It's open and shut.

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

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jan 2020 @ 5:58am

    Re: Is now a good time to mention...

    Yep. uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger on all browsers. Namely:

    Chrome. Tor. Firefox with the above AND NoScript AND policy to only accept cookies from a domain whitelist.

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

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jan 2020 @ 6:24am

    I'll happily let advertising back onto my PC when the industry cleans up its act.
    I used to whitelist Techdirt, but after the incessant advertising for Russian and Thai brides, autoplaying videos every (UK) morning because the advertisers who Techdirt had vetted would change the ad content to be worse while the Techdirt staff are asleep and just the simple fact that adverts are generally ugly, annoyingly animated, and spoil the look of whatever I'm actually reading the site for, I couldn't take it any more.

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

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jan 2020 @ 6:35am

    Re:

    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.

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

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jan 2020 @ 8:22am

    Re:

    Not to mention Techdirt's "featured videos" (aka auto-playing video ads) at the bottom of the sidebar!

    Auto-playing video ads are unacceptable, period. I don't care if they're "featured"; all that means is that TD is willing to sell us out if the price is right.

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

  14. identicon
    Qwertygiy, 15 Jan 2020 @ 10:22am

    Re: Re:

    Ah, right, that old mess.

    I am not sure if the difference is substantial enough to matter, especially when the precedent is so... difficult to unravel logically, but I would imagine that to mean "you would buy it from someone else if you didn't make it yourself, so it affects the market of people selling it" whereas in this case, no, you would not buy it from someone else, because there are hundreds of free options and nothing's stopping you from using multiple ones at the same time.

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

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jan 2020 @ 10:33am

    Re: Is now a good time to mention...

    Block all Javascript, all the time

    If that's your goal, navigate to about:config and set javascript.enabled to false. NoScript tends to have weird side-effects. Use a separate Firefox or Tor Browser instance for when you really need Javascript (set the LOGNAME environment variable differently for each to avoid the "already running" error).

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

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jan 2020 @ 11:15am

    Eyeo and Adblock Plus are a 100% NO NO NO.

    Eyeo GmbH (Wladimir Palant) is essentially the Russian Government running a shell corporation out of Germany. Hoovering up personal data, banking information and a load of other illegal stuff.

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

  17. identicon
    bob, 15 Jan 2020 @ 11:22am

    Re: Re: Is now a good time to mention...

    Or you can just use noscript to allow some approved scripts to operate. That way you dont need a separate browser.

    UMatrix allows for better fine tuning but also increases the amount of effort you must put in to make it work correctly.

    On my home machine it is uMatrix. on a phone it is usually just conscript because the screen is too small for navigating the uMatrix UI.

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

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jan 2020 @ 12:14pm

    Re:

    Troll

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

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Jan 2020 @ 1:27pm

    Re: Re: Re: Is now a good time to mention...

    That way you dont need a separate browser.

    Separate browser profile (not installation), which is a very good thing to have anyway. For example, if you have Facebook in its own profile, they can't use cookies to track your non-Facebook browsing. It's the only surefire way to stop cross-site attacks too, which is good for stuff like device administration pages and banking. (NoScript does try to protect against that.)

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


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