Google and Apple announced changes coming to popular browsers Chrome and Safari in June that could have a significant impact on the future of online ads, user data collection, and tracking.
In a blog post earlier this month, Google outlined changes coming to Chrome in 2018, including a first-party ad blocker that will seek to weed out “annoying, intrusive ads on the web.” That means any online ads that don’t conform to Google standards — namely pop-ups, autoplay videos with audio and ads that obscure the whole page after loading — won’t appear in Chrome, the most-used web browser with a 44.5 percent market share.
“These frustrating experiences can lead some people to block all ads—taking a big toll on the content creators, journalists, web developers and videographers who depend on ads to fund their content creation,” Google said in a blog post announcing the changes.
Google’s standards come from the Coalition for Better Ads (CBA), an industry trade group whose members include Google and Facebook, who together make up more than 60 percent of the $60 billion-plus digital advertising market and 99 percent of all the market’s revenue growth in the third quarter of 2016. The majority — 54 percent, or $9.5 billion — went to Google.
Google and CBA believe the ad types they’ll be targeting next year are driving the adoption of ad blockers, which the advertising tech and analytics firm PageFair said in February “is growing explosively in Asia and is set to spread to North America and Europe.” According to the company, 11 percent of the global internet population is blocking ads as of December 2016.
“In dialogue with the Coalition and other industry groups, we plan to have Chrome stop showing ads (including those owned or served by Google) on websites that are not compliant with the Better Ads Standards starting in early 2018,” the company’s post reads.
Chrome’s ad blocker will be turned on by default, screen ads that don’t conform and eventually block all advertising on websites that break its rules. On the flip side, Chrome will give websites the ability to ask users to either disable their ad blocker or pay to view publisher’s content ad-free via a feature dubbed “Funding Choices,” of which Google will take a cut.
Many in the online publishing and advertising agency are predictably concerned about Google exerting more control over the online ad space. Others support disincentivizing ads most find annoying, but suggest the ads themselves aren’t the reasons more online users are gravitating toward 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,” the digital privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says.
A better solution, EFF suggests, is the one Apple rolled out earlier this week via an update to Safari, the second most-popular browser behind Chrome with a 25.4 percent market share. With a new feature the MacBook maker calls Intelligent Tracking Prevention, Safari will prevent tracking by third-party advertising websites incorporated on sites a user visits by using machine-learning and other techniques to disable cookies — files given to a web browser from a web server that sends data back to the web server whenever the browser loads a page from it.
Via machine learning, Safari learns “to classify which top privately-controlled domains have the ability to track the user cross-site, based on the collected statistics” and purges cookies from domains a user doesn’t directly visit. If the user continues navigating to top-level domains that connect to third parties with cross-site tracking abilities, Safari will continue purging those cookies unless a user navigates to such a site directly.
“If the user interacted with example.com the last 24 hours, its cookies will be available when example.com is a third-party. This allows for ‘Sign in with my X account on Y’ login scenarios,” Apple explained. “This means users only have long-term persistent cookies and website data from the sites they actually interact with and tracking data is removed proactively as they browse the web.”
The system prevents scenarios in which third-party cookies stay embedded on a browser, tracking and transmitting data on a users browsing habit across the web, and keeps browsing data from leaving a user’s computer.
“The success of the web as a platform relies on user trust,” Apple said in a blog post describing the changes. “Many users feel that trust is broken when they are being tracked and privacy-sensitive data about their web activity is acquired for purposes that they never agreed to.”
The policy is a continuation of Apple’s increasing commitment to user privacy in recent years.
“We have a straightforward business model that’s based on selling the best products and services in the world, not on selling your data,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in 2015. “We don’t sell advertisers any information from your email content, from your messages, or your Web browsing history,” he added with a subtle jab at Google, Yahoo, and others.
EFF describes Apple’s model as exemplary, adding it “contrasts starkly” to Google. Chrome lets users block ads and opt-in to paywalls, but not out of tracking.
“Google and the CBA want to address the visibly annoying aspects of ads while ignoring the deeper privacy issues,” a recent EFF blog post reads. “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!”
The changes come as Congress, the ad industry internet access and content providers debate changing the law to require service providers like Comcast and content providers like Facebook to get user permission before collecting data including browsing history.