Google Retracts Proposal That Would Have Hobbled Chrome Ad Blockers

Posted on February 17, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud with 22 Comments

Google has retracted a controversial proposal that would have hindered the capabilities of Chrome-based ad blockers after a third-party study determined that the supposed performance benefits of doing so were imaginary. Or, as some are suggesting, invented by Google in an attempt to curb the blocking of ads, its core business.

“We are committed to preserving the extensions ecosystem on Chrome and ensuring that users can continue to customize the Chrome browser to meet their needs,” Google’s Devlin Cronin wrote in a post to the Chromium Extensions group on Google Groups.  “This includes continuing to support extensions, including content blockers, developer tools, accessibility features, and many others.  It is not, nor has it ever been, our goal to prevent or break content blocking.”

Google immediately came under fire when it proposed changes to the way that Chrome handles certain classes of extensions. The big issue concerned a technology called the webRequest APIs, which is used by many popular content blockers, including ad blockers. Google claimed that its proposed changes were aimed at improving performance and privacy. But the individuals and companies that make ad blockers, in particular, saw a darker possibility. That Google was purposefully hobbling ad blockers because its business is wholly dependent on advertising revenues.

One extension maker, Ghostery, went so far as to threaten Google with an antitrust lawsuit.

“Whether Google does this to protect their advertising business or simply to force its own rules on everyone else, it would be nothing less than another case of misuse of its market-dominating position,” a Ghostery statement explained.

Whatever you make of this issue, we should credit Ghostery with discovering the truth behind Google’s claims about performance. It studied the performance impact of popular Chrome content-blocking extensions like uBlock Origin, Adblock Plus, Brave, DuckDuckGo, Ghostery 8, and exposed the Google lie.

“Our comparison demonstrates that the most popular content-blockers are already very efficient (having a sub-millisecond median decision time per request) and should not result in any over-head noticeable by users,” the Ghostery study explains. “We showed in another study, The Tracker Tax, that blocking ads and trackers actually reduces the loading time of websites by up to a factor of 2. Besides, efficiency is continuously improved and technologies such as WebAssembly will allow to go even further.”

A ZDNet report about this issue also cites other studies that have arrived at similar conclusions: Ad blockers and other content blockers don’t slow down web browsers, they actually make web pages load more quickly.

Whether it was the Ghostery study or just the general negative feedback—I’m not aware of any credible individual or organization actually defending Google’s proposed changes to Chrome—the online search giant did back down.

“The webRequest API is not going to be fully removed,” Mr. Cronin wrote. “Once again, we are committed to supporting extensions in Chrome.  We will continue to work with developers.“

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