Advertisers can pay AdBlock Plus to look the other way

Color me disillusioned. First, US representative Anthony Weiner uses Twitter as his own personal Chatroulette and then Lance Armstrong admits that he got some help from science in order to win all the Tour de Frances. And now we find that AdBlock Plus (ABP), the popular ad-blocking browser extension, allows advertisers such as Google to pay to get their ads “whitelisted.”

Nothing is sacred.

Who watches the gatekeepers?

ABP is a browser extension available on Firefox (where the company claims it is the browser’s most used and downloaded extension) as well as ChromeOpera, and Android, though it is not available via Google Play as Mountain View claims the software interferes "with another service or product in an unauthorized manner." The popular open source software gives users the ability to block “banners, pop-ups and video ads”—but not all ads are treated equally.

As early as 2011, ABP has allowed specific ads to be “whitelisted” under certain conditions, meaning that they will be able to pass through unblocked under the software's default settings. (Users have the option to block all ads in the extension's settings.)

According to the company, ABP allows these “non-intrusive” ads so websites can sustain themselves with ad-supported revenue. In order to be included on ABP's acceptable list, ads must adhere to a number of attributes such as not including animation, sound, or attention-grabbing images. If a website feels their paid ad content falls under these acceptable attributes, they can be ask to be whitelisted via a web form for free.

Sounds fair. However, the Internet has been bubbling with the realization that AdBlock allows “larger properties” to pay to have their ads whitelisted, a system explained by the company:

Whitelisting is free for all small websites and blogs. However, managing this list requires significant effort on our side and this task cannot be completely taken over by volunteers as it happens with common filter lists. That's why we are being paid by some larger properties that serve nonintrusive advertisements that want to participate in the Acceptable Ads initiative.

We have reached out to ABP for further comment [Update: after publication, an ABP rep reached out with a comment, which we have included below this post]. For their part, the company has been fairly transparent with the process. However, Google is a multi-national entitity that makes most of its revenue through advertising. It would make sense for them to want to encourage the free flow of text-based Google ads, and when possible, discourage competition. Their financial influence over the popular ad gatekeeper could give them an unfair advantage over smaller companies that may want to break into the ad game.

A cynic might resign themselves to the fact that the system is inherently uneven and tilted towards whoever is currently on the throne, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to keep things fair.

UPDATE: After publication an AdBlock Plus rep reached out to offer the following comment to our story: "Your headline implies that there might be something improper going on, and I can assure you that there is not. Google had to submit their ads to the public forum for whitelist consideration -- just like everybody else -- and their financial influence gains them no advantage over anyone else."

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