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In Allowing Ad Blockers, a Test for Google

In a manifestolike e-mail message sent last month to all Google employees, Jonathan Rosenberg, a senior vice president for product management, told them to commit to greater transparency and open industry standards. Rather than hoard knowledge to exploit it, he wrote in “The Meaning of Open,” share it and watch Google and the entire Internet prosper.

With the Chrome browser, however, Google’s inclusive principles are being put to the test: a new version of the browser allows, one might even say encourages, users to stop Google ads from appearing.

Google Chrome
Google Chrome

How Google got to such a position speaks to the inherent dynamism (or is that chaos?) of business on the Internet.

Google announced on Dec. 8 that the test, or beta, version of Chrome would accept extensions — little programs that improve or customize the browser’s performance — as a way of harnessing the creativity of an outside community of programmers who would work free and agree to share what they make with others. The standard version should do likewise in a matter of months, Google said.

Google’s extensions mimic the “add-on” system that has flourished on the open-source Firefox browser.

As it happens, two 28-year-olds, Michael Gundlach, an independent programmer from outside Athens, Ga., and Tom Joseph, an M.D.-Ph.D. student at Mount Sinai Medical School, separately went through the exact same experience. In telephone interviews, each told of excitedly looking to see if he could install a Chrome extension of his favorite Firefox add-on, Adblock Plus, which prevents ads from appearing on Web sites, whether bright flashing animation or the text ads that Google serves up after a search.

They did not find one. So, naturally, each spent a day or so creating a rough version of such an extension, with much more work to come. AdThwart from Mr. Joseph is now No. 2 in popularity among the more than 1,200 Chrome extensions; AdBlock from Mr. Gundlach is No. 8. Together, they already have more than 120,000 users.

“When I saw they made extensions on Dec. 8,” Mr. Gundlach said, “I said I bet they have an ad blocker. When I saw they didn’t, I said I need to make this thing, and I need to make it awesome.”

Despite his enthusiasm, Mr. Gundlach, like Mr. Joseph, told of wondering if Google would even allow such potentially self-harming extensions.

Each read the rules, and when convinced that an ad-blocking extension wouldn’t be kicked off, began programming in earnest.

Mr. Joseph said he was “honestly a little surprised that they kept true to their word and allowed ad-blockers,” but then explained that in many ways, Google’s hands were tied. Programmers who make iPhone applications, whose work exists at the sufferance of Apple, he said, at least share in the profit. Google needs to give great latitude to programmers as a way of “keeping credibility with the people who make extensions.”

Both programmers said their tasks were much easier because they had borrowed from the Firefox add-on — whether its code or its carefully compiled affiliated list of Internet addresses where ads come from. The Chrome extensions work differently, though: ad blockers on Chrome cannot prevent the ads from arriving on a Web page, as is done on Firefox; instead they mask the ads after they arrive.

For now, Google is playing only on the fringes by tolerating ad-blocking programs on Chrome, despite the implied threat to its livelihood. Chrome is still a fringe browser — in the vastness of the Internet, 40 million users is still fringe — and ad-blocking browser additions are still a relatively fringe experience.

“Ad blockers are still used by a tiny proportion of the Internet population, and these aren’t the kind of people susceptible to ads anyway,” Wladimir Palant, who runs Adblock Plus on Firefox, wrote in an e-mail message. Adblock is the most downloaded add-on for Firefox and has more than seven million users.

Still, Google seems confident that Internet users will be able to distinguish between their ads and more aggressive display advertising.

Speaking at a conference on Dec. 11 in Mountain View, Calif., Linus Upson, engineering director at Google, said there were many discussions before allowing ad-blocking programs “because Google makes all of its money from advertising.”

But he explained that the prevailing thinking was that “it’s unlikely ad blockers are going to get to the level where they imperil the advertising market, because if advertising is so annoying that a large segment of the population wants to block it, then advertising should get less annoying.”

“So I think the market will sort this out,” he said. “At least that is the bet we made when we opened the extension gallery and didn’t have any policy against ad-blockers.”

Mr. Gundlach, who once worked for Google in Ireland helping to ensure that ads kept appearing on Web sites, says he does not fear for media companies that increasingly rely on online ad revenue. Sounding like a firm believer of Mr. Rosenberg’s embrace-the-chaos manifesto, Mr. Gundlach said a brighter day would emerge from the challenge of ad blockers.

Extensions like his, he said, will make “every one else change their ways, to make ads more useful. Everyone wins, that’s competition. The ideal result would be to retire this extension because the entire Web was covered with ads that people loved and no one wanted to block them.”

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