Google’s new ad blocker could upend the web publishing business. Don’t expect the U.S. to get in its way. – VICE News
News that Google, which is no stranger to antitrust battles, plans to implement an ad-blocking function on its Chrome web browser has caught the attention of regulators from Washington, D.C. to Brussels.
The feature, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, would make Google the gatekeeper determiningÂ what ads reach consumer eyeballs. Since the Chrome browser is employedÂ by 44.5 percent of internet users in the U.S., and Google accounts for 41 percent of global digital ad revenue, publishers are bracing for impact.
â€œIn my mind, this is a monumental move,â€ said one antitrust lawyer who has gone up againstÂ Google in the past andÂ who requested anonymity because he was not authorized by his firm to speak to the press. â€œGoogle has crossed the Rubicon â€” itâ€™s using its dominant browser to protect its dominant ad business. This is using Chrome to weed out advertising that Google doesnâ€™t like.â€
An estimated 11 percent of internet users worldwide already use third-party ad blockers, and shipping one as a function of Chrome will increase theÂ number of people blocking ads, damaging an already-weakened publishing ecosystem. But several industry experts told VICE News theyâ€™re skeptical that Googleâ€™s move will whip up antitrust fervor in Washington given the anti-regulation stanceÂ of the Trump administration and the Federal Trade Commission.
â€œThe FTC is pretty sleepy right now,â€ said Hal Singer, a senior fellow at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy whose work focuses on competition policy. â€œThereâ€™s no pressure.â€ Singer also argued that under the Obama administration, regulatory capture occurred â€” in other words, the FTC was promoting the interests of Google rather than those of the public.
The FTC declined to comment for this story, but there is little reason to believe acting chairman Maureen Ohlhausen would take action. She was among the FTC commissioners in 2015 who declined to bring an antitrust lawsuit against Google despite the recommendations of some FTC staff, and in 2013 she dissented from an FTC settlement unfavorable to the internet giant.
Regardless, Google in the U.S. may very well not be doing anything wrong.
â€œI would have to be convinced that this is an antitrust violation in the United States,â€ said Herbert Hovenkamp, a professor at the University of Iowa College of LawÂ who specializes in antitrust. â€œMany consumers prefer it, a good sign that something is not anticompetitive.â€
Europe, Hovenkamp added, is another matter.
â€œIncreasingly, I fear, EU policy is moving in the direction of protecting competitors at the expense of consumers,â€ he said. â€œU.S. policy, for the most part, attempts to do the opposite.â€
Singer predicted European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager might take action, as this issue falls â€œright smack dab in the sweet spot of what she is interested in.â€ She tweeted on Thursday morning that the European Commission â€œwill follow this new feature and itâ€™s [sic] effects closely.â€
AÂ spokesperson for the European Commission, which already hasÂ three [antitrust] cases against Google, said he hadÂ nothing to add on the record but confirmed Vestager is â€œfollowing the issue with interest.â€ Asked if VestagerÂ favors launching an investigation, he said it â€œwould be entirely premature to speculate on at this stage.â€
Google saysÂ it wouldnâ€™t be making ad-blocking decisions on its own â€” instead, it would be enforcing standards from an outside group. â€œWe have been working closely with the Coalition for Better Ads and industry trades to explore a multitude of ways Google and other members of the Coalition could support the Better Ads Standardsâ€‹,â€ the company said in a statement.
Jason Kint, who runs Digital Content Next, a trade organization for digital publishing companies (including VICE) said in an emailed statement that his group is â€œ100 percent committed to the Coalition for Better Ads.â€
â€œWeâ€™ll wait to hear publicly from Google on what exactly theyâ€™re planning to roll out,â€ Kint said. â€œThe world of ad blocking is as murky as they come. Friends and enemies can easily be confused, good and evil often mistaken, and interests arenâ€™t always as they appear.â€
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