Google has proposed changes to Chromium, the open source engine used in its Chrome browser, that could effectively kill ad blockers as we know them today. That isn't the stated reason for the changes, of course. Google says it wants to make Chrome extensions more secure, better defend user privacy and ensure page load times aren't increased by unruly extensions. But some are arguing the move could be more detrimental than that.
Here's what the Ghostery ad blocking company said in a statement, as per Gizmodo this week:
“This would basically mean that Google is destroying ad blocking and privacy protection as we know it. They pretend to do this for the sake of privacy and browser performance; however, in reality, users would be left with only very limited ways to prevent third parties from intercepting their surfing behavior or to get rid of unwanted content.”
On January 22, developer Raymond Hill made a similar point in a discussion about the change.
"This essentially means that two content blockers I have maintained for years, uBlock Origin ('uBO') and uMatrix, can no longer exist," he said.
To say uBlock Origin would be missed if it disappeared is an understatement; it's been installed more than 10 million times from the Chrome Web Store alone.
A Potential Blow to Online Privacy
Losing tools like these would be a huge blow to online privacy. Countless trackers monitor browsing activity so it can be sold to the highest bidder. Most of these trackers are invisible, and there's no way to stop most of them from working unless you use some form of automated ad blocking tool. If uBO's download figures are any indicator, millions of people are doing just that.
That's a problem for Google. The company makes the vast majority of its money via ad platforms. Reducing the effectiveness of ads shown via those platforms reduces their value, so even if ad blockers only stopped tracking instead of completely blocking ads, they'd be a problem.
You can probably see where this is going. Google is the exception to the rule because it makes the browser people use to view the websites on which its ads are displayed. Well, actually, it's even better than that. Google also makes the browser engine and a search tool many people use to navigate the web, as well as many of the destinations those people are searching for and the ad network used on most ad-supported sites. No other company has that much apparent power over the web.
Microsoft is reportedly planning to switch its Edge browser over to Chromium. Some have alleged that Google all but forced this shift by "breaking" websites for its services (Gmail, Docs, YouTube, etc.) in other browsers. Google's services are more popular than Microsoft's, at least online, so this theory notes that Edge either has to adapt or be left behind.
All hope wouldn't be lost if these changes hit Google Chrome. People could switch to browsers like Firefox, Safari or Brave to continue using ad blockers. There are also hardware solutions like the Pi-hole for people who don't mind tinkering a bit and want even greater control over the information they share.
Google might not move forward with the proposed change to Chromium. But even considering this shift demonstrates the potential risks of giving one company so much influence over the web.