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 determining what ads reach consumer eyeballs. Since the Chrome browser is employed 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.
“In my mind, this is a monumental move,” said one antitrust lawyer who has gone up against Google in the past and who requested anonymity because he was not authorized by his firm to speak to the press. “Google has crossed the Rubicon — it’s using its dominant browser to protect its dominant ad business. This is using Chrome to weed out advertising that Google doesn’t like.”
An estimated 11 percent of internet users worldwide already use third-party ad blockers, and shipping one as a function of Chrome will increase the number of people blocking ads, damaging an already-weakened publishing ecosystem. But several industry experts told VICE News they’re skeptical that Google’s move will whip up antitrust fervor in Washington given the anti-regulation stance of the Trump administration and the Federal Trade Commission.
“The FTC is pretty sleepy right now,” said Hal Singer, a senior fellow at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy whose work focuses on competition policy. “There’s no pressure.” Singer also argued that under the Obama administration, regulatory capture occurred — 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.
“I would have to be convinced that this is an antitrust violation in the United States,” said Herbert Hovenkamp, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law who specializes in antitrust. “Many consumers prefer it, a good sign that something is not anticompetitive.”
Europe, Hovenkamp added, is another matter.
“Increasingly, I fear, EU policy is moving in the direction of protecting competitors at the expense of consumers,” he said. “U.S. policy, for the most part, attempts to do the opposite.”
Singer predicted European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager might take action, as this issue falls “right smack dab in the sweet spot of what she is interested in.” She tweeted on Thursday morning that the European Commission “will follow this new feature and it’s [sic] effects closely.”
A spokesperson for the European Commission, which already has three [antitrust] cases against Google, said he had nothing to add on the record but confirmed Vestager is “following the issue with interest.” Asked if Vestager favors launching an investigation, he said it “would be entirely premature to speculate on at this stage.”
Google says it wouldn’t be making ad-blocking decisions on its own — instead, it would be enforcing standards from an outside group. “We 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 Standards,” 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 “100 percent committed to the Coalition for Better Ads.”
“We’ll wait to hear publicly from Google on what exactly they’re planning to roll out,” Kint said. “The world of ad blocking is as murky as they come. Friends and enemies can easily be confused, good and evil often mistaken, and interests aren’t always as they appear.”