Recently Google and Apple announced plans to respond to complaints about online advertising. Both companies will implement changes to their browsers to neutralize some of the most annoying ad formats, but only Apple has chosen to address concerns around user privacy.
Starting sometime in 2018, Google's Chrome browser will begin blocking all ads on websites that do not follow new recommendations laid down by the industry group the Coalition for Better Ads (CBA). Chrome will implement this standard, known as the Better Ads Standard, and ban formats widely regarded as obnoxious such as pop-ups, autoplay videos with audio, and interstitial ads that obscure the whole page. Google and its partners worry that these formats are alienating users and driving the adoption of ad blockers. While we welcome the willingness to tackle annoying ads, the CBA's criteria do not address a key reason many of us install ad blockers: to protect ourselves against the non-consensual tracking and surveillance that permeates the advertising ecosystem operated by the members of the CBA.
Users Can Opt In to Publisher Payments—But Not Out of Tracking
In tandem with their Better Ads enforcement, Google will also launch a companion program, Funding Choices, that will enable CBA-compliant sites to ask Chrome users with content blockers to whitelist their site and unblock their ads. Should the user refuse, they can either pay for an "ad-free experience" or be locked out by a publisher's adblock wall. Payment is to be made using a Google product called Contributor, first deployed in 2015. Contributor lets people pay sites to avoid being simply shown Google ads, but does not prevent Google, the site, or any other advertisers from continuing to track people who pay into the Contributor program. This approach is consistent with the ad industry's dogged defense of tracking, and its refusal to honor user signals such as Do Not Track. The industry's sole response has been to create a system called AdChoices, which offers users a complicated and inefficient opt-out from targeted ads, but not from the data collection and the behavioral tracking behind the targeting. By that logic, it is okay to track and spy on people who opt out—as long as you don’t remind them that they are being tracked!
With a vast network of websites that display its ads, and over 50 percent of the browser market, Google has the power to address the ad quality problem by requiring sites to control the types of ads they show or risk losing all income from Chrome users. Google's motivation is strong because, collectively, ad blockers are undermining Google's revenue from programs like DoubleClick AdExchange, AdSense, Adwords—or, in the case of Adblock Plus and Adblock, unblocking those ads but demanding payments in exchange. While Google Chrome has mostly allowed users to install the ad- and tracker-blocking tools of their choice, there is always the risk that Google may seek to neutralize any blocking capability not under its direct control. This is no imaginary threat: in 2014, the Android Play Store banned Disconnect Mobile, a privacy app designed to prevent third party tracking. And in January of this year, the Chrome store kicked out AdNauseam, an obfuscation and anti-tracking tool that unblocks ads from websites that have adopted the EFF's Do Not Track policy and promised to respect user demands for privacy.
At EFF, we understand that advertising funds much of the media and services online, but we also believe that users have the right to protect themselves against tracking. Advertising is currently built around a surveillance architecture, and this has to change. Until then, users will continue to install browser extensions like Privacy Badger and make use of tracking protection in browsers like Brave, Firefox, Opera and Safari to protect themselves.
Google and the CBA want to address the visibly annoying aspects of ads while ignoring the deeper privacy issues. Instead, they should take their lead from Apple on this one. Ad quality needs to improve and advertisers must abandon any attempt to hijack our attention with disruptive audio, flashing animation, or screen takeovers. But this alone will not win back the trust of users alienated by an ad system run amok. Users should be given more control over the ads they are shown, and their Do Not Track demands must be honored. The web should be about opening up new possibilities both individually and collectively, but the feeling of being monitored can create unease that information about us could be misused or revealed without our permission. Since the Web has become central to human thought and communication, surveilling it without an opt-out is a fundamental intrusion into human cognition and conversation. Any plan to make ads "better" that lacks a core privacy component is fundamentally broken.