Technology × Freedom

Google Is Too Powerful, but Chrome's Planned Ad Filter Is Just a Normal Market Response

June 8, 2017 nitsuj

Google recently announced plans to include an ad “filter” in its Chrome web browser starting early next year. It’s not a “blocker” because it will allow some ads through: those deemed worthy by the Coalition for Better Ads, of which Google is a member. Their awkwardly titled Initial Better Ads Standards shows examples of intrusive ads that will be filtered, including pop-ups, auto-playing videos with sound, full-screen countdowns, and more. Although unconfirmed, it’s believed that the ad filter will be enabled by default when it ships in Chrome.

Additionally, Google announced a tool called “Funding Choices” that, when added by a publisher to their website, prompts visitors running other ad blockers to either disable the ad blocker or pay a fee to access the content.

The contradiction in this is blatantly obvious to anyone who follows Google (or its parent company, Alphabet): they make almost 90% of their revenue from selling ads. Their own ads, of course, meet the aforementioned standards and won’t be filtered, which is where this story gets interesting. Compound that with the fact that Chrome commands over 50% of the browser market share, and some would have us believe we have a full-blown conspiracy on our hands.

Like David Dayen, writing for The Intercept:

So this is a way for Google to crush its few remaining competitors by pre-installing an ad zapper that it controls to the most common web browser. That’s a great way for a monopoly to remain a monopoly.

There’s more to the story, however. The real goal for Google appears to be not just blocking ads sold by other digital suppliers besides Google, but to undermine third-party ad blockers, which stop Google ads along with everyone else’s.

Web users will quickly recognize their only options: pay to use the internet, or uninstall the ad blockers and surf the web for free. At least 11 percent of all web users, and perhaps as many as 26 percent of all desktop users, have third-party ad blockers on their devices, a number that will likely grow in the next few years.

The argument undergirding Dayen’s entire piece – as well as less sensational takes – is the power and control Google wields. On that, I couldn’t agree more. But if that’s the argument, then let’s not waste time attacking every little move Google makes – let’s cut to the root cause and how it can be remedied.

While the U.S. government has played their part, the majority of Google’s success can be attributed to consumers choosing to use their products. Lots of people choose to exchange their personal data for “free” search, “free” email, “free” analytics, etc. Google has attained its power and control through people giving it to them. The remedy, then, isn’t breaking them up or regulating them into submission, but something much more straight-forward: deliberately choosing not to use Google. Every one of us has the power to opt-out and protect ourselves; it doesn’t require waiting on any government to do that for us. Perhaps david.dayen@gmail.com should consider some of the alternatives before railing against the very problem he’s helping proliferate.

Once the issue of power and control is set aside, the idea of an ad filter in Chrome makes sense. Like every business, Google is responding to the changing market. They see consumers increasingly choosing to use ad blockers for a better browsing experience, and they see how that threatens their primary revenue stream. What business wouldn’t try to adjust for this? They have to continue to provide what consumers want in a way that makes money for them to survive. Google could have outlawed ad blockers in Chrome completely, or started charging for their products instead of relying on ad revenue, but they know people would have left in droves. They had to strike a balance that mutually benefitted both parties, which is what they did. Consumers get a better browsing experience, and Google keeps its revenue stream intact. And just like Google, the invasive ad networks and sites that use them will have to adjust to the changing market to survive. I have no doubt the majority will.