Google Slammed by the EFF for Blocking Ads but Allowing User Tracking

Google confirmed recently that it is coming out with a new version of its Chrome browser that will have ad-blocking features built in, which the company says will make it easier for users to surf the web without being annoyed by intrusive ads.

The search giant is coming under fire for not blocking another annoying and intrusive aspect of web browsers, however—namely, the fact that they track their users’ behavior.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out on Wednesday, Apple just announced a new version of its Safari browser that will not only block certain types of annoying ads (including auto-playing video ads), but will also disable user tracking.

Google’s update is focused solely on blocking what it says are obtrusive ads such as unwanted videos, ads that have a timer that counts down before the user can see the content, and so on.

“At the EFF, we understand that advertising funds much of the media and services online, but we also believe that users have the right to protect themselves against tracking,” researcher Alan Toner wrote in an essay published by the foundation. “Advertising is currently built around a surveillance architecture, and this has to change.”

Google’s decision to block certain types of advertising by default has been criticized by publishers and antitrust experts because of its dominant position in the digital ad market.

According to a recent research report from Pivotal analyst Brian Wieser, Google and Facebook combined control more than 75% of the $70-billion digital advertising market in the U.S., and the two companies alone accounted for almost all the growth in the market last year.

That dominant position is likely also the reason Google doesn’t want to block user tracking, since advertisers rely on those methods to target ads effectively.

Apple has no real advertising business, and therefore it doesn’t mind cutting off tracking in its browser. And the company has made a point in the past of stressing that it doesn’t invade its users privacy the way that companies like Google and Facebook do.

In his essay, the EFF researcher also notes that in addition to blocking ads, Google is offering publishers a new feature called Funding Choices, which will allow them to offer users the ability to turn off third-party ad blocking software and pay the publisher directly for content.

Even if users choose to do this, however, they can still be tracked by advertisers, Toner says. The new feature lets people pay sites to avoid being shown ads “but does not prevent Google, the site, or any other advertisers from continuing to track people who pay.”

Toner says the advertising industry has repeatedly rebuffed efforts to come up with a standard for opting out of tracking, like the Do Not Track program that was initially proposed in 2011.

“The industry’s sole response has been to create a system called AdChoices, which offers users a complicated and inefficient opt-out from targeted ads, but not from the data collection and the behavioral tracking behind the targeting,” the EFF researcher said.

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