Google Blocked Some Ads. It Wants to Prevent You From Blocking the Rest.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A lot happens when you browse the internet. Ostensibly you’re just looking at nytimes.com, but behind the scenes the page has loaded over 30 external scripts. Most are there to provide you with a more relevant experience — by which I mean, targeted ads.

The good news is that you can install a browser extension to block undesirable content. The bad news is that Google is onto this, and has proposed changes to its web browser that will limit your future ability to use those ad blockers.

In a recent proposal, Google describes an overhaul of its browser application interface that would disable current content-blocking extensions. A browser is not just a window to the web, but an agent that acts on behalf of the user. It communicates information about a person’s machine to remote servers so that websites can deliver the appropriate experience, a process known as content negotiation. Once a site has loaded, the page may instruct the browser to fetch and execute additional requests. For example, many publishers include scripts that run a tracker, a piece of code that collects identifying information that it uploads to an ad server.

Users aren’t completely at the mercy of their browser-agents. Many people (about 71 percent of U.S. internet users) install ad blockers and content filters to customize the flow of data.

User empowerment is not an unalloyed good: People can inadvertently install poorly designed extensions that slow down the browser, or extensions with hidden malware that allow attackers to hijack their machines. Google’s rationale behind restricting custom functionality is to improve security, privacy and performance, but a less charitable interpretation might be that Google wants to ensure nothing stands between its ads and your eyeballs.

The proposed update applies to both Chrome and Chromium, Google’s open-source web browser. Chromium serves as the basis for Google Chrome as well as Amazon Silk, Opera, Microsoft Edge and Yandex. Together, they have a 70 percent market share of web browsers.

Control of a dominant web browser gives a company immense influence over the web. Last year, Google introduced a built-in Chrome feature that blocks particularly intrusive ads — things like pop-ups and mandatory delays. Before the browser was even released, the most obnoxious sites like Forbes and In Touch Weekly preemptively updated their sites to comply with Google’s Better Ads Standards to avoid getting blocked.

To its credit, Google has done a lot to make the internet a less hostile place. In the early 2000s, every site was optimized for Internet Explorer and the web was replete with pop-ups, frames and blinky text. If a page was inordinately slow, it was almost impossible to tell whether that was because of a malware-laden browser or terrible web design.

Google Chrome introduced Safe Browsing to protect users from nasty sites as well as a JavaScript engine that could run scripts faster than any previous browser. Users downloaded Chrome because it was fast and lightweight, while web developers took advantage of the newfound performance to fill their sites with scripts that would have otherwise been unwieldy.

As sites continue to optimize for Google Chrome, more users are compelled to use Chrome for a better browsing experience. Google’s tracking scripts now appear on over 50 percent of the 10 million most popular websites, and last week a Microsoft program manager encouraged Mozilla to give up on its Firefox competitor and embrace Chromium.

Conversations around data privacy tend to focus on what information third-party services can store and sell, with little attention paid to the user’s first line of defense. The last bastion of privacy relies on the fact that users can, to some extent, control what information is volunteered.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Elaine Ou is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a blockchain engineer at Global Financial Access in San Francisco. Previously she was a lecturer in the electrical and information engineering department at the University of Sydney.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.