Google notches up the war on adblockers

Some months back, I noticed more and more people I follow on Mastodon were commenting, or forwarding posts of others, on how they’ve noticed warnings on YouTube about users employing adblockers on their browsers.

Adblockers, for those not well-versed in internet parlance, are tiny third-party programs you can add onto your browser that literally prevent ads from showing on websites you visit. The upside for the user is that you aren’t inundated with advertising everywhere you go online. The downside for the people providing those websites is that revenue from ads can often be a way — perhaps the only way — they make any money for their work.

Adblocker users can choose to “whitelist” (grant permission for) ads to appear on whatever selected websites they wish, which overcomes any moral quandry of wishing to support the content providers of smaller websites while continuing to block ads on, say, YouTube, which is owned by Google, which makes hundreds of billions of dollars a year by selling user data to companies who want to target their advertising, and reaping more money still when said advertisers want to put ads on sites that Google itself owns.

Google, understandably, doesn’t like adblockers. Advertising revenue makes up an estimated 90% of Google’s annual revenue these days. One can’t blame them for balking at the idea of people no longer seeing the ads they’re trying to get their clients to sell. It shouldn’t be a surprise that YouTube is where Google has opted to take a stand against adblockers. It’s a huge cashcow for them. It is, after all, one of the largest and most used websites on the planet, with north of 500 hours of content uploaded every minute. All those eyeballs on all that content lets Google charge a premium for advertisers wanting to put ads on that site. But all of that is diminished by the estimated 40% of global online users now using adblockers. Suddenly Google can’t be confident — can’t control — that people on YouTube are seeing those ads any more. So they can’t sell advertisers with that assurance. Which makes for lower profits on one of their most viewed website.

All of this came to a head more recently, when YouTube went beyond just warning people with adblockers that they needed to turn off those adblockers for YouTube (read: whitelist it), and went as far as to prevent people using adblockers from getting onto YouTube at all. Literally, if users aren’t going to agree to see ads on YouTube, they aren’t allowed onto the site, period. How users choose to see that move on Google’s part will be as different as each user is, but reactions on Mastodon that I’ve seen seems to be in the range from thinking this a childish move to railing against Google for it. Either take could be understandable, given Google makes hundreds of billions of dollars a year whether or not 40% of people on YouTube aren’t seeing advertising there specifically.

But however you view the move, here we are.

Suffice to say I’ve suggested to my daughter, who has a burgeoning YouTube channel with a hodgepodge of videos (some of which are doing very well in view count for an urban kid throwing stuff together and putting it online), that sure, post on YouTube. But that she may also want to consider putting the same content on alternate video streaming services like Vimeo or the growing PeerTube sites (a decentralized collection of sites that host video content, part of the “fediverse” that Mastodon is included in). That way people who choose to use adblockers, and who thus aren’t allowed on YouTube, still have ways to see her videos.

I don’t see this impasse clearing up any time soon. Google wants to make more money year over year — one of the mainstays of capitalism I simply don’t get, since that’s an inherently unsustainable goal — and users who don’t want their online experience as inundated with advertising as their real lives aren’t going to give up their adblockers any time soon. The latter group has some wins in their corner, with a German court saying some years ago that content providers can’t change (so one may also assume, block) content that users with adblockers get to see. And just last month a complaint was filed with none less than the European Union itself claiming that YouTube’s methods of detecting whether or not users are employing adblockers breaks privacy laws. The EU has some of the most robust data privacy and security laws on the planet, so no surprise that they’re on the cutting edge of protecting users in this area.

I’ll update on the issue as big developments happen.