Google is building a kill switch that could reshape the web

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Switch on the ad blocking toggle that appeared this week in Google’s experimental version of Chrome, and nothing will happen.

The feature is out of service at the moment, according to a Google spokesperson, a shell of a tool with which its developers can tinker while the search giant hammers out the operational details through an ad industry trade group.

But what that tiny, empty bit of code actually represents is a looming change agent that could reshape the entire web. It’s a killswitch that Google could throw whenever it so pleases.

Chrome is by far the most popular browser in the world, meaning rational commercial websites have no choice but to play by its rules. The standards it builds into the filter will ripple across the rest of the internet as publishers adjust their ad-buying decisions to accommodate them.

The spokesperson said it won’t be active until 2018 and does “not indicate any change to our product plans,” which is the standard company line for things that appear in the developmental Chrome Canary build and won’t necessarily make it all the way to the browser’s final cut.

But meanwhile, Google has been clear that an ad filter will happen in one form or another. After weeks of rumors, it formally announced the project in June and rolled out a tool that lets publishers check if their ad loads meet the Coalition For Better Ads principles on which it’s basing the filter’s settings.

While the decision to incorporate standards agreed upon by the industry as a whole is viewed as a diplomatic approach, publishers are naturally wary of the plans for a number of reasons.

Google currently constitutes the bigger half of a duopoly (along with Facebook) that has the online ad industry in a stranglehold. Some coalition members say Google holds a corresponding amount of sway over the agenda of the group, a joint effort between media companies, ad tech firms, major brands, and their respective trade groups.

Conspiracy theories have swirled about underhanded designs that may lie behind the push, the most obvious of which being that Google could use the tool to block all but its own ads.

Google’s move is not entirely without precedent, though. In the early 2000s, as pop-up ads flooded the web to fill the revenue holes left by the dot-com crash, the New York Times described a “consumer revolt” in the form of skyrocketing rates of pop-up blocker installations.

Then too, some publishers and ad executives wrung their hands, though the industry’s main trade group, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), notably decided not to object. DoubleClick, now a Google subsidiary, designed software to circumvent the blockers.

“They are part of a quid pro quo,” one ad tech exec told the Times at the time. “If you want to enjoy the content of a website that is free, the pop-ups come with it.”

Yet by 2004, every major browser offered a blocking tool.

The internet’s obviously changed a lot in the decade-plus since. There’s a lot more money at stake and a lot more unnerving consolidationbut some things remain the same.

While traditional pop-up ads remain vanquished, the industry has found new ways to replicate their most annoying traits through autoplay videos and interstitial windows that hold webpages hostage. The massive migration of web surfers from desktop to mobile in recent years has only made the problem worse as the industry awkwardly figures out how to make use of less screen space.

Maybe it’s time for another purge. An improvement in user experience, if handled in an equitable manner, could slow the growing masses of people turning to full-scale ad blockers and benefit the industry as a whole. Google certainly seems to think so or else it wouldn’t be building its killswitch.

Trade groups have tried to push rulebooks for less intrusive ads like the Coalition’s for years, but they suffer from a collective action problem that only a massive company like Google can really muscle through.

There are certainly reasons to be skeptical of Google having its hand on the wheel of this undertaking, though. For years, it’s been quietly paying the world’s most popular ad blocking service millions to let its ads through the firewall, even as the IAB, of which Google is the biggest member, railed against such extortionist practices. The company has also earned a reputation for not being forthcoming to their clients and business partners on various advertising metrics.

Still, there’s also a growing recognition among the industry that the status quo needs to change, and like it or not, Google now has the switch to make it happen.

As its developers work towards it, their adjustments will be sent in real-time to Google’s servers and thus, to everyone with the Canary app in Android.

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Tags: big-tech-companies business consumer-tech google google-chrome

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