Browser-Based Ad Blockers Soon A Thing of the Past?

Google Chrome, Manifest v3 and what happens when an online advertising giant dominates the web browser market.

Browser-Based Ad Blockers Soon A Thing of the Past?
Photo by Growtika on Unsplash

Google Chrome launched in 2008. Just seven years later, it became the world’s dominant desktop browser — inching to just over 50% market share in early 2015. As of October 2022, Chrome desktop and mobile market share stands at 67% and 64% respectively. There are currently no serious competitors in sight. While Chrome’s user growth has recently slowed, it's fair to say that Google now dominates the browser market.

Three factors can explain Chrome's rapid rise to dominance:

  1. Speed

Speed is what originally gave Chrome an edge over the competition — Internet Explorer and Firefox at the time. When Chrome launched, slow loading times were typically attributed to poor internet connectivity rather than bad software. Speed was also a mainstay of Google’s marketing efforts. This 2010 ad featuring a Rube Goldberg machine pits Chrome against the power of lightning and…a potato. Spoiler alert: Chrome wins. (Don’t worry if you are confused. So am I. I don’t think the ad is supposed to make sense.) The point is that Chrome was (and still is) incredibly fast. While the gap has narrowed somewhat recently, Chrome remains the fastest browser on both PC and Mac.

  1. Rich Web Applications

Modern web apps (e.g. Office 365, Gmail, Google Workspace) have become indistinguishable from their desktop counterparts. Google recognized this trend toward web apps early and designed Chrome to seize on it. This is the reason behind Chrome's minimalist interface, which encourages focus on the core experience, and tab sandboxing, which prevents crashed tabs from taking down the whole browser. As web applications became increasingly sophisticated, even supplanting traditional desktop software for e.g. email or editing documents, Chrome was perfectly positioned to ride the wave of changing user behavior. It certainly didn’t hurt that Google was the main driver of this trend. Apps such as Gmail and Google Docs set the standard for what users could expect from browser-based software. Moreover, some features of popular Google apps only worked on Chrome e.g. offline editing in Google Docs.

  1. Browser Extensions

Extensions allow users to add functionality to their browsers. The Chrome extension gallery was launched in late 2009. One year later it was home to over 10,000 extensions. While Firefox also launched extensions at this time, Chrome's approval process was simpler which helped to attract more developers. The added functionality provided by extensions combined with Chrome's speed gave it an edge over Firefox and encouraged more people to switch.

Extensions remain indispensable to web browsing today. Use cases include crypto wallets, tab managers, translation tools, spelling and grammar checkers and games. One of the most popular extension categories are ad blockers. Once installed, these extensions block banners, popups and even some YouTube ads. They also can also limit cookie-based tracking, which advertising networks often use to identify you across the web. Some well-known ad blockers include uBlock Origin, Ghostery and Privacy Badger.

However, changes coming soon to Google Chrome may render ad blockers and other privacy-preserving browser extensions all but impotent. Starting in early 2023, Google will gradually phase out support for its current application programming interface (API: a way for two programs to communicate) called Manifest V2 in favor of a new version: Manifest V3.

Meme by Micupas from Reddit

It's mainly on mobile where I realize how essential ad blockers are to the browsing experience. I use Firefox on my iPhone. It doesn't support add-ons (mobile browser extensions) due to Apple's proprietary iOS extension system. As a result, I'm exposed to a lot of ads. Some pages are so overloaded with ads that I can barely scroll through them. They cause Firefox to stutter and occasionally freeze. I've also realized that the pop-up ad is far from dead - at least on mobile. This once-anachronistic nuisance has been further weaponized with autoplay videos that often crash my browser.

My point is that the availability of ad blockers should not be taken for granted. Especially considering the recent push toward more online advertising that we've seen from the likes of Netflix, Spotify, YouTube and other

Google claims that Manifest V3 is "more secure, performant, and privacy-preserving than its predecessor. It is an evolution of the extension platform that takes into consideration both the changing web landscape and the future of browser extensions."

Yet many extension developers are saying that the transition to Manifest V3 will likely harm their projects. A post on the Ghostery blog notes that "nothing Manifest V3 introduces in it's current state, can help protect privacy." In a 2019 post on the uBlock Origin GitHub page, one of the developers clarifies (referring to Manifest V3) that "removing the blocking ability of the webRequest API means the death of uBO [uBlock Origin], I won't work to make uBO less than what it is now."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a pioneering digital rights and privacy advocacy group, also vehemently decries the upcoming changes introduced by Manifest V3:

...Manifest V3 is another example of the inherent conflict of interest that comes from Google controlling both the dominant web browser and one of the largest internet advertising networks.

Manifest V3, or Mv3 for short, is outright harmful to privacy efforts. It will restrict the capabilities of web extensions—especially those that are designed to monitor, modify, and compute alongside the conversation your browser has with the websites you visit. Under the new specifications, extensions like these– like some privacy-protective tracker blockers– will have greatly reduced capabilities. Google’s efforts to limit that access is concerning, especially considering that Google has trackers installed on 75% of the top one million websites.

Chrome Users Beware: Manifest V3 is Deceitful and Threatening

The online advertising business is largely a duopoly between Google (Alphabet) and Facebook. Advertising accounts for the vast majority of Alphabet's (Google’s parent company) revenue. AdBlockers and other privacy-preserving extensions cost Google business. Estimates of how much revenue is lost due to these apps varies wildly, but many range in the tens of billions. That’s a tidy sum even for a tech juggernaut. Why would Google develop a browser with the potential to massively undercut it's bread-and-butter business?

Chrome does not yield revenue for Google directly. Instead, the money "earned" through Chrome comes primarily in the form of cost savings. Because Chrome is so popular, Google doesn't have to pay to have its search products integrated into other browsers. (For comparison: Google pays Apple $8 to $15 billion dollars annually to remain the default search engine in Safari). With two billion devices running Chrome, the savings quickly add up.

Creating and maintaining a web browser is an expensive endeavor. One estimate puts the baseline cost of developing a cross-platform browser at $450 million. No one spends this kind of money without expecting a return on their investment.

Back in 2012, Chrome had been declared "exceptionally profitable" by Sundar Pichai, then the VP of Chrome and Apps and now the CEO of Alphabet. Chrome’s market share then stood at 28%. Google has since cemented its lead in the browser market.

Chrome conquered its rivals through an obsessive focus on user needs. Ad blockers and other privacy-preserving extensions are clearly in high demand. On the other hand, Google also has an obvious interest in at least preserving (if not expanding) its ad business. And while the ramifications of Manifest V3 on Chrome's extension ecosystem remain to be determined, early indicators appear to trend negative. It could, therefore, be reasonably argued that Google is no longer acting in Chrome users' best interests.

Are we witnessing a shift in strategy? Is Manifest V3 a sign of things to come?