Is Google Putting The Kibosh On Samsung Ad Blockers In Play?

adblockerbootIt may not be master over how its software is used, but that isn’t stopping Google from ruling its Play store with an iron first. It appears that some ad-blocking apps are not welcome.

Taking a page out of Apple’s playbook, Samsung on Sunday rolled out support for content blocking within the default browser that comes pre-installed on its Android phones. It didn’t take long for Adblock Fast, one of the first ad blockers to hit the Play store after Samsung’s release, to rise to the top of the charts.

But its success was short-lived.

In an episode reminiscent of Google’s removal of ad-blocking privacy app Disconnect last September, Adblock Fast got booted out of Google Play on Wednesday for violating the section of Google’s Developer Distribution Agreement that prohibits developers from creating anything that interferes with or disrupts how another app or service does business.

(Fun fact: Brian Kennish, CEO of Rocketship Apps, the maker of Adblock Fast, was also the founder and CEO of Disconnect, as well as a Google engineer in a past life, so he knows how Google rolls.)

Google’s move is curious considering that the entity being interfered with, Samsung, is the one that created content-blocking functionality within its browser in the first place. Samsung is inviting developers to do exactly what Google Play penalized Adblock Fast for doing.

But unlike Apple, Google doesn’t control how its operating system is used by third parties. Apple made the choice to institute content blocking in iOS 9. Samsung essentially made that choice for Google.

“Samsung is an OEM [original equipment manufacturer] – they actually manufacture and preload software onto the phone – and as such, they are one of the few parties not constrained by what Google allows into the Play store,” said Brian Kane, COO and co-founder of anti-ad blocker Sourcepoint. “Apple has fully embraced ad block, and for Google to try and strong-arm their OEM partners in an attempt to stamp it out on Android seems like a short-sighted move, reactionary and, ultimately, likely to fail.”

That said, the party that controls the primary platform distribution, as Google does with Play, essentially has the power. While it’s possible to disseminate Android apps outside of Play – iOS apps, by contrast, are only available in Apple’s App Store – their reach would be greatly curtailed, if not stamped out completely.

“Ultimately, what isn’t in Google Play will be hidden from the majority of Android users who won’t think to install or browse multiple storefronts,” said Dean Murphy, the developer behind iOS 9 ad-blocking app Crystal. Murphy recently released a Samsung-supported version of Crystal, which is still available for download in the Play store, at least for the moment, although a subsequent update to the app was denied by Google. Murphy is appealing.

A few things could be getting Google’s goat here.

For one, unlike on desktop, Chrome mobile, which also comes preloaded on Android phones, doesn’t offer ad blocking baked into the browser. Perhaps Google isn’t taking kindly to what appears to be Samsung’s attempt to woo users away from Chrome toward its own browser.

It’s also possible Google doesn’t like Samsung messing with its delicate ad revenue model-based arrangements.

Google pays a “‘ransom’ to Eyeo, creator of Adblock Plus, “to the tune of millions of dollars a year,” Kane said, whereas Adblock Fast, which just received its Play store pink slip, declares on its website that it “doesn’t, nor do we intend … to ever, make any money. … Unlike other ad blockers, we don’t sell out to support our project.”

As of this writing, Adblock Plus was still live in Google Play.

“Were Adblock Fast and their altruistic ad blocking to proliferate and take share from Adblock Plus, Google could see their advertising revenues decrease, as their tunnel for ad delivery to ad-block users would be closed up,” Kane said.

But what’s stopping ad blockers from setting up their own channels of distribution, circumventing Play altogether?

Technically, nothing, said Tom Cummings, director of account management at Fiksu, but as Murphy pointed out, it’s an unlikely scenario.

“Unlike Apple, Google allows alternate app stores, which can set their own policies when it comes to deciding what apps they allow or block,” Cummings said. “But the vast majority of US Android users will never go outside Google Play when searching for apps – even Amazon is facing a big uphill climb with their app store.”

Of course, the brouhaha around Adblock Fast aside, the deeper issues behind what actually motivates ad-blocking behaviors remain.

“Ads are increasingly eating up larger amounts of data: Takeovers, multiple browser popups and autoplay videos can substantially drive up data usage,” Cummings said. “Platforms and publishers need to solve this before consumers feel the pain in their data usage wallet, or else we’ll start to see ad-blocker adoption really take off, regardless of the steps consumers have to take to install them.”

There’s also an increasing “struggle for control of data, targeting based on data and privacy,” said Been Inc. co-founder David Yoon, who has firsthand experience of what it feels like to get unceremoniously turfed out of an app store. Apple removed Been Inc.’s in-app ad blocker Been Choice from the App Store in mid-January.

“The telcos, the device manufacturers, OS developers and app developers are fighting for access to data – data upon which ads and features can be designed and offered,” Yoon said. “I think Samsung, as Apple had done, is trying to ride this emerging wave of demand for greater control over privacy.”

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1 Comment

  1. This has been Google’s MO for a while now. We created an ad blocker based off some of the same software of our own app on the play store, but under its own designation it was not allowed. Google created that third party services rule to punish us, but those with ad blocking browsers found their own way around it. If someone wants ad blocking in apps alongside browsers, they’re gonna have to come to us. We’re free, and we’re the only ad blocker that blocks encrypted ads as well.