If you ever tried browsing the web using ad blocking and anti-tracking software – especially one capable and resource-friendly like uBlock Origin -, you will find it very difficult to go back to the web pages visually littered with unwanted advertising garbage, and choking under the hood with tracking cruft and scripts.
And that's just the usability angle – how about security and privacy that browser add-ons like uBlock Origin improve for their users?
Well, if you're a Google Chrome user, you're out of luck – you will have to go back to experiencing that terrible web you knew before getting to know ad blockers. Alternatively, you'll be paying Google some money for the privilege.
The way Google is doing this is to change Chrome's Manifest V3 extensions system, and in the process break the blockers. And not only them, but also privacy extensions and anything else dependent on intercepting content before it shows up in the browser.
Specifically, Google is deprecating manifest V3's web API blocking capabilities. Developers and users have strongly criticized the decision.
But it's not the first time Google has faced a user backlash over a decision made on one of its products and services, and it won't be the last they will staunchly ignore any opposition to the move.
But paying, enterprise customers, will still be able to use ad blockers like uBlock and Ghostery, Google replied.
Everyone else will have to use lower quality ad blocking software, based on a limited, rules-based system, a-la Adblock Plus. However, Google promised to possibly of increasing the current limit of 30,000 rule – maybe, one day.
Developers also took issue with Google attempting to sell this as a positive because the webRequest API itself will not be deprecated – when the real issue is that its blocking capabilities will be, for all but enterprise.
Lead uBlock Origin developer Raymond Hill has reacted by basically observing that it's a miracle Google has not done this sooner – considering that unhindered ad blocking goes so directly against the way the tech giant makes its billions.
Hill recently found out that Google's parent company, Alphabet, filed an SEC Form 10-K where blocking software used in the browser was described as a risk factor for its revenue.
In it, Alphabet explains that the bulk of Google's revenue comes from displaying ads, and that the blocking tech could harm the core functionality of third-party advertising online.
Despite this, Google is still trying to frame the change as motivated by webRequest API's performance concerns – something that, even if present as a problem, Firefox has already solved. And Google could have easily modeled its own solution after it. No, said Hill – slower page loads come from tracking code, rather than extensions performing their function.
It seems undeniable that making more money is the motivation behind this highly unwanted change, that still leaves current Chrome users objecting to intrusive advertising and tracking with two options: stay on Google's platform, but become a paying enterprise users; or leave, and start using one of browsers where uBlock Origin and similar software is still fully supported and functional.
In fact, in a post on GitHub Hill said he was confident Firefox would continue to use its own webRequest and support his ad blocker.
As for “regular” users of Chrome, they will still have access to some ad blocking capability, but now via the declarativeNetRequest API – that will likely not even be supported by some developers of current ad blockers, either for technical or for ethical reasons.
Hill spelled the situation out in an email to the Register, where he said that Google's primary business is “incompatible with unimpeded content blocking.”
“Now that Google Chrome product has achieve high market share, the content blocking concerns as stated in its 10-K filing are being tackled,” he wrote.
Here's the section in full:
Personal view on this
What we see are the public statements, for public consumption, they are designed to “sell” the changes to the wider public. What we do not see is what is being said in private meetings by officers who get to decide how to optimize the business. So we have to judge not by what is said for public consumption purpose, but by what in effect is being done, or what they plan to do.
This is how personally I see the deprecation of the blocking ability of the webRequest API in manifest v3:
Another ad blocking entity that has pointed the finger at uBlock Origin as a risk factor to its own business model is Adblock Plus owner eyeo GmbH. But how is it possible that an ad blocker thinks ad blocking is bad for its revenue stream? Perhaps because although once a pioneer, it's not really a true blocker nowadays – Ad Plus block is the partner of Google, among others, that let's “acceptable ads” through – and makes money from showing them.
Meanwhile, among those concerned about Google's move has been EFF's Privacy Badger extension.