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A U.S. senator wants the ad blocking industry investigated

Acceptable Ads are unacceptable.

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What you need to know

  • Senator Ron Wyden has asked the FTC to investigate the ad blocking industry for anti-competitive practices.
  • The Senator calls out AdBlock Plus’ acceptable ads policy as unacceptable.
  • He urges for more transparent disclosure in cases where advertisers pay to be whitelisted.

United States Senator Ron Wyden has called on the FTC to investigate what he critiques as anti-competitive practices by the ad blocking industry.

In a letter surfaced by The Verge, Senator Wyden laid out his case, saying:

Hundreds of millions of consumers around the world have downloaded and installed software tools that purport to block online ads. In turn, the largest ad companies — including Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Verizon Media — have quietly paid millions of dollars to some of the largest ad blocking software companies in order to be able to continue to track and target consumers with ads.
(…) Accordingly, I urge the FTC to open an investigation into unfair, deceptive and anti-competitive more transparent with consumers. Ad blockers that whitelist ads in exchange for payments from ad companies should be required to prominently disclose this to existing users whenever they are shown an ad from a paying advertiser and to new or potential users when they are downloading or installing the ad blocker.

Senator Wyden is referring to AdBlock Plus’s Acceptable Ads policy. The scheme allows advertisers whose ads met certain criteria to be whitelisted by the system, effectively bypassing ad blocking by default. It’s free for small to medium websites whose ads adhere to the acceptable ads policy, while larger firms with “more than 10 million incremental ad impressions per month”. The program is now run by the independent Acceptable Ads Committee.

That being said, while it’s true that the Acceptable Ads committee does allow companies to pay to be whitelisted, it’s also true that extensions like AdBlock Plus offer an option to completely disable all ads if the user desires. On the other hand, Wyden raises the point that ad blocking firms who made the switch over to whitelisting ads did not disclose their intentions to consumers clearly enough, potentially violating an FTC policy which requires companies to disclose “facts [that] would be material to consumers in deciding to install the software.”

The FTC confirmed to The Verge that it had received Senator Wyden’s letter, but gave no indication of any action it was planning to take.

It’s not clear whether the FTC will investigate, and what it will conclude if it does. After all, it’s hard to argue against more transparency for consumers.

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