Ad blocking made Google throw its toys out of the pram – and now even more control is being taken from us

We need regulations on web advertising


Column Google makes its money from being the world's middle man for online advertising. It's kind of a tech company too, but in a good-enough sort of way rather than the "hey, we invented the transistor" sort of way. It doesn't do anything nobody else can do, except leverage its search dominance into advertising dominance.

No surprise, then, that the company is ambivalent about ad blocking. In its new Manifest v3 plug-in architecture and its recent server-side tagging moves, it's taking control away from us and limiting what we can see – and therefore deny – of its ad delivery and analytics machinery.

It can't do this too quickly because it understands the political dangers, but you can bet that the giant's kitchens have pots full of frogs on a low heat.

Google, photo by lightpoet via Shutterstock

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To some extent, we're still winning the battle. You can get multiple complementary plug-ins that deny requests to known ad networks, spot and block tracking tags, and so on. The more ambitious can install software like PiHole, which sits on your home network and does the same for all traffic, if you're comfortable with setting up servers and tinkering with DNS. The more technical you are, the more options you get – although why no mainstream home router makers have put ad and track filtering in their products is slightly mystifying.

But this balance of power is changing. With server-side tagging, for example, Google effectively takes over all the ad and analytics traffic from your browser and runs it in the cloud, where you can't see it. That's great for Google because it improves the quality and speed of data acquisition, but leaves us getting what we're given. The safeguards against this being abused? "Don't be a dick," as one developer put it to potential users of server-side tagging. Bad news, mate: ad tech companies pretty much own the rights to dickhood.

If you look at data analytics company websites where they discuss client-side versus server-side tracking, the number one con against client-side is "control rests with the user." You might think this is a good thing – it is literally their biggest fear.

We do have a working example of this fear realised. The very best advertising experience on the web is on Twitter. I've experienced many of the highs and lows of Twitter over the years, as well as the very complicated. There's nothing like getting a response, or even praise, from someone you very much admire, and having someone of renown pass on some expertise is journo catnip. Those are good things. Being on the end of a highly abusive troll army of bigots while fighting your corner is a bad thing. Having a tweet go viral and your timeline melt for a day – that's complicated.

But the best thing Twitter does is putting adverts in that timeline. The adverts themselves are as crass, unwelcome and intrusive as on any site, but the microburst of joy you get when you select Block User is unmatched anywhere else online. Not that I block all adverts, but a good 90 per cent of the companies who try to sell me stuff I see once and then never again.

Let's consider a world where this functionality wasn't just a good idea, but a legal requirement. What if all adverts on all platforms had a "never again" button? How often would you click it? Yeah, me too. "Control rests with the user" – say it with me.

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The argument against this, like that against ad blockers, is that once denied advertising revenue, all sorts of good things will go away. But in reality, ad money goes into ad networks, into products designed to serve more ads and monetise your sweet bippy ever more efficiently. The rise of Facebook and the slow death of journalism is due to online ads. Oddly, the economy and levels of innovation hold up pretty well when "free" doesn't translate to uncountable billions in someone else's bank account.

If a legally mandated ad-block technology was blessed with enough finesse to let the good ads through – and we're the only people who can make that judgement – then advertising revenue wouldn't fall to zero. Good advertising – the sort targeted at readerships by the reader's own actions – would prosper because the stuff that reaches only the right people is worth far more than the stuff that gets spaffed across all our screens. Platforms that could offer that targeting – we used to call them newspapers – would prosper too.

Bad advertising – the stuff that makes our lives hell and the ad-tech monsters rich – would suffer, but the crazification factor, that 35 per cent of people who seem certifiably and irretrievably permanent strangers to logic, would probably keep it going enough so the rest of us still enjoy some free stuff.

We know that legal controls on advertising works: the pirate radio ships of the 1960s were mostly taken off-air not through police action or prosecuting listeners under the Wireless Telegraphy Act, but by stopping UK companies from advertising on them. The fact that Lewis Hamilton's car doesn't look like a cigarette packet is part of the reason your uncle won't die of lung cancer. And we still have pop music radio and Formula 1.

Let's go for it. Let's use technology to put the fear of the Lord into those who would be the dickiest of dicks. It's another way we can get our internet – and a world where sanity is a bit more fashionable – back. ®

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