Chrome is doing away with its ad blocking extensions soon. Some will still work but the majority will be severely curtailed.
What’s going on, and what are your options? Which ad blockers will still work, and what can you do to get control over your browsing experience?
Let’s start with the basics.
What happened to ad blocking on Chrome?
Toward the end of 2018, Google announced it would be deprecating the API most ad blockers used as part of the Manifest V3 update to Chrome’s code. The internet erupted, and Google fell back on a less-extreme position: ad-blocking APIs would still be available, but only for enterprise Chrome users.
Google insists that it’s not killing ad blocking, pointing instead to issues with Chrome extension security that have been called out by security researchers and others. But ad blockers disagree and point out that losing the API means falling back on less-efficient methods of blocking ads.
Google used to offer ad blockers via the Web Request API, which let ad blockers comb through all the requests coming and going through your browser to identify and block ads. That’s now been replaced by the Declarative Net Request API, which Google has said will improve ad blockers’ efficiency.
Net Request, Web Request: What’s the difference?
The big difference is in how extensions are allowed to access data from the browser. Without getting too technical, Web Request used to let extensions see whatever they wanted. Ad blockers used it to monitor traffic and block ads. Other extensions sometimes used the same functionality for malicious purposes. The extension could see and handle all your browsing data and all the data that was displayed on a web page, including financial information, contact details, passwords, and everything else.
Declarative Net Request keeps data like that at the browser level. It makes new rules for the browser to follow instead of stepping directly into your browsing data and it’s the browser that then implements those rules.
The problem with rules
These rules, third-party programming instructions for Chrome, take longer to work and are less flexible. Chrome currently has a 30,000-rule limit per extension, but in response to pressure from the developer community has proposed to extend that to 150,000 per user in total, spread across as many extensions as you like.
Critics say that new rules must be submitted to Google and aren’t implemented until Google has approved them, a process which can take weeks and which will permanently hand advertisers the upper hand in response speed. Basically, this slows ad blockers down and limits how much power they have.
How does the change fit into Chrome’s business model?
While Google has caught an increasing number of potentially insecure Chrome extensions since last year, often before they were offered to users, it’s also an ad-based business. And in a December, 2018 SEC filing its parent company, Alphabet Inc., noted that ‘changes to our data privacy practices, as well as changes to third-party advertising policies or practices may affect the type of ads and/or manner of advertising that we are able to provide which could have an adverse effect on our business.’
Can you still get ad blocking to work?
For now, ad blocking functionality remains unchanged. Alterations to Chrome can take a long time to percolate through, and Google is still finalizing what these will look like. But when they do come into force, most ad blockers on Chrome will be a lot less effective, because Declarative Net Request is a less flexible tool for building ad blocking functionality than its predecessor.
Most ad blockers will work as before until Manifest V3 kicks in, which is likely to be the beginning of 2020, the projected roll-out date for stable Chrome 76, for most Chrome users.
The most popular ad blockers are Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin, and each will face real problems with the new API. uBlock Origin will effectively be killed off in its current incarnation since it’s entirely dependent on the Web Request API. And since it does far more than simply block visible ads, it’s likely to quickly run afoul of the new 150,000-rule limit. Adblock Plus and other simpler ad-blockers will likely stagger but survive.
With limits on the number of rules any one extension can impose on the Chrome browser, keeping ad blocking in the air post-Manifest V is going to take some juggling.
However, there are still some options.
The 3 best ad blockers that still actually work for Google Chrome
As we’ve said, all adblockers still work as normal until Manifest V3 kicks in. When it does, which ad blockers will be left standing?
Ghostery hasn’t set out a schedule for how they’re going to deal with the post-Manifest V3 world but they are actively working on continuing to provide an ad blocking service through Chrome. When we reached out to them they told us: ‘this is on our radar and our team is working hard to make sure Ghostery supports any of these future changes. However, we don’t yet have the details of what exactly this will look like.’
Currently, Ghostery provides plenty of modular control over which ads and tracking you block and how.
How it will marry that level of user control with a more unwieldy back-end reliant on approval from Google isn’t clear yet.
Adblock Plus is one of the most successful ad blockers in the world. Over 100 million users trust it to block ads while they surf the web and it’s Chrome’s most popular ad blocker. However, its parent company, Eyeo, lets ads through that are approved by the Acceptable Ads Committee, which used to be owned by Eyeo before it was transferred in 2017 to ‘interested parties from for-profit companies, industry experts and Internet users like you.’
This means Adblock Plus sits between users and advertisers, mediating the relationship rather than advocating directly for one group or the other. And its closeness with the ad industry as well as its large user base means it’s likely to be in a position to offer a similar service in the future.
If you disagree with Adblock Plus’ definition of acceptable ads, you have enough control to turn them off in the current incarnation, at least:
Chrome comes with its own built-in ad blocking software, designed to block all ads that don’t comply with the stipulations of the Coalition for Better Ads, one of whose founders is Google. We can say for certain that this ad blocker will continue to operate after Manifest V3 comes into force, and we can safely assume that it won’t be phased out any time soon since it’s the one ad blocker that Google definitely wants you to use.
But how useful is it at blocking ads?
Zoom out to look at the wider picture, and what the Coalition for Better Ads means by ‘better ads’ is ‘data-driven ads.’ Chrome’s ad blocker means you’re likely to see advertising that’s more accurately targeted to your interests, but not that you’re necessarily going to see fewer ads. That might suit you. If it doesn’t, Chrome adblocker doesn’t give you many tools to change which ads you see.
What there is, you’ll find under Advanced in the Settings of your Chrome browser. Go to Site Settings and scroll down until you see Ads.
Here you have the choice to whitelist and blacklist sites, and to set general ad permissions, but that’s the extent of the control you have:
The Nuclear Option = Switch Browsers
If you want to avoid ads altogether or keep the same level of ad blocking that you’re used to with a tool like uBlock Origin, the answer might be to take a truly drastic step and abandon Chrome altogether.
Many modern browsers are built on Chromium (the open-source codebase for Google Chrome), and a clutch of these Chromium-based browsers responded to Google’s Manifest V3 announcement by saying they would continue to support the We Request API. In many cases, these browsers have better privacy chops than Chrome users can reasonably hope to get their hands on even with fully-functioning ad blockers, though the huge array of extensions that augment Chrome’s functionality won’t always be available.
The best options include Opera, Vivaldi, and Brave. All of which are Chromium-based and all of which have publically pledged to retain full ad-blocking functionality.
It’s also worth looking at Firefox, which will allow you to port Chrome extensions across to the browser and which also takes privacy seriously. In fact, Firefox not only offers ad blocking as standard, as well as supporting third-party ad blockers, in partnership with mschf (not a typo) internet studios, the company developed Track THIS which reverse-engineers marketing personas and then does its own browsing to create a fake browsing history and encourage ad mistargeting.
Brave browser is less familiar for users who are comfortable with Chrome’s interface even though it’s Chromium-based. And the initial download file is huge. But it delivers really solid ad blocking, built into the browser itself and with no links to the ad industry. While Chrome is moving away from facilitating ad blocking, Brave does it natively and has recently updated its method, claiming to have made the process 69 times faster.