You might be perturbed if somebody calls your business an “extortion racket” or your sales pitch a “ransom note.” But Eyeo Chief Executive Till Faida, leader of the widely used Adblock Plus browser extension, is unruffled. The way he sees it, he’s just trying to rescue online advertising and the websites that rely on it.
The criticism stems from the company’s business: Offer a browser extension that blocks ads, then carve off 30% of ad revenue from large publishers that agree to participate in an Eyeo program that unblocks ads. Faida doesn’t say who’s paying, but looking through Eyeo’s “whitelist” that governs which websites get to show ads, you’ll see big names like Google and Amazon.
“There needs to be a sustainable way to fund content on the web, but it should be done in a user-controlled way,” Faida told me while visiting CNET during one of his periodic US excursions from Eyeo headquarters in Cologne, Germany.
Back in the good old days of online advertising, people blocked ads because they didn’t like in-your-face clutter. Now people often block them because they can invade your privacy, slow down websites, flatten your phone’s battery, eat through your data plan and deliver malware.
No wonder, then, that Eyeo’s ad-blocking software is on 100 million PCs and smartphones and that AdBlock Plus is the top Firefox extension by far. But it’s hard to block ads everywhere without driving websites to paywalls, and Eyeo’s situation is complicated. Even as it blocks some ads, it also offers an ad exchange of its own to help supply publishers with ads. Here’s a closer look at the Adblock Plus landscape.
1. How does Eyeo’s Acceptable Ads program work?
Eyeo launched the Acceptable Ads program in 2011 to codify its standards for ad usage that Adblock Plus wouldn’t block on websites that agree to cooperate and get on Eyeo’s whitelist. To meet the requirements, ads can’t be too large, flashy or intrusive. It’s a matter of striking the right balance between what users like and what websites need, Faida said.
By default, Adblock Plus blocks ads for all sites that aren’t on Eyeo’s whitelist, though some of Eyeo’s nearly 170 employees are hired to keep publishers from sneaking past the system. You can set Adblock Plus to block all ads.
More than 90 percent of companies on Eyeo’s whitelist don’t have to pay to participate, Faida said. Only larger publishers showing more than 10 million Acceptable Ads per month have to pay Eyeo the 30% of resulting revenue.
Ad blocking may drive publishers toward paywalls, but Faida believes ad blocking is here to stay. “What’s really putting the free and open web at risk is not ad blockers,” he said. Instead, it’s that there are too many spots available for online ads. “There’s a vicious cycle where ads are more and more aggressive at same time they’re less and less valuable.”
2. Who sets the Acceptable Ads rules?
In 2017, Eyeo set up the work as a nonprofit with participation from other companies involved in online advertising. Its 50 members include ad technology companies, ad agencies, publishers and others in the industry.
Another outfit, the Coalition for Better Ads, serves a similar role. That’s the one Google chose when looking for standards for Chrome’s ad blocking policy, which began in 2018 for websites that overused ads. That was a notable move given that Google, in addition to making the dominant web browser, is one of the biggest online ad players and operates some of the internet’s biggest online services.
3. Why doesn’t Adblock Plus block ad trackers by default?
Tracker blocking is catching on, with notable moves in Apple’s Safari, Mozilla’s Firefox and Brave Software’s Brave today. Some tracking protections are coming to Microsoft Edge and even Chrome, too. That’s on top of tracker blocking from extensions like uBlock Origin, DuckDuckGo, Privacy Badger and Ghostery.
But Adblock Plus doesn’t block tracking by default through the Acceptable Ads program. It’s up to users to decide, Faida said. If you don’t like Facebook and Twitter tracking you, there’s also an option to disable those social sharing and like buttons.
“Some consumers don’t mind tracking and want to support the websites they use,” Faida said. “Other users are more concerned about privacy.” But when users engage the stiffer privacy controls, that shuts off the revenue for Eyeo, not just publishers.
4. Will Chrome cripple Adblock Plus?
Through a policy called Manifest v3, Google’s Chrome team is adding new limits to extensions, including ad blockers, in an effort to improve security, privacy and performance. Unfortunately for ad blockers, that puts limits on rules they use to probe website elements — for example, finding if an ad comes from a whitelisted internet domain.
Google lifted an earlier proposed rules limit from 30,000 to 150,000, but some content blocking extensions say that’s not enough. And that’s after months of discussion and user threats to quit Chrome if it hurts ad blockers. Google has said it wants to allow content-blocking extensions, though, and Faida doesn’t expect Adblock Plus will be crippled.
“I’m optimistic they will listen to our feedback,” he said. Google has legitimate security concerns, but he believes engineers can find a solution that doesn’t hobble blockers. And if Chrome goes ahead anyway, other browsers will swoop in to claim disaffected users, Faida said.
5. What about building ad blocking into the browser?
Ad blocking is becoming a built-in option in some browsers like Opera and UC Browser. Brave enables it automatically. Adblock itself is joining the trend, too.
Microsoft’s mobile version of Edge is integrating Adblock Plus directly, and it can be enabled with Firefox and Samsung Internet on Android. Adblock Plus also offers its own ad-blocking browser for iPhones.
But Faida disagrees with Brave’s ad-blocking approach. Specifically, he doesn’t like that Brave’s ad system shows Brave-supplied ads after stripping out publishers’ ads. “Blocking ads and injecting your own is a very different approach than helping publishers to show their own ads,” Faida said. “We want to create an open ecosystem.”
But Brave’s ad system, which is optional, pays users a portion of the revenue generated and has a mechanism to share that revenue back with publishers. Brave is also working on a system to show ads directly on websites in cooperation with publishers that will receive the lion’s share of that revenue.
“Unlike Eyeo, we block trackers and refuse to whitelist them, because privacy-by-default is the only way to rebalance the system and to justly reward users and publishers instead of intermediaries that perpetuate a toxic ecosystem,” Brave CEO Brendan Eich said in a statement.
Brave’s technology offers both user privacy and publisher revenue — something Eyeo can’t manage if you enable its tracker blocking, Faida acknowledges. “There are very few ads available that don’t require any tracking at all,” Faida said.
So, as even ad-supported companies like Google and Facebook join Apple’s call for online privacy, it’s clear more change is coming to today’s online ad industry.
First published July 22.
Update July 29: Adds further comment from Eyeo and Brave.