Well…score one for Apple. Okay, not exactly. It is ironic however that a company that is so well known for its “closed ecosystem”–that being iOS–allows for adblocking apps when the supposed “open ecosystem” of Alphabet/Google’s Android is now explicitly not allowing for adblockers.
“We don’t allow apps that interfere with… other… services, including but not limited to other apps on the device, any Google service, or an authorized carrier’s network…
Here are some examples of common violations:
Apps that block or interfere with another app displaying ads.” [emphasis mine]
That’s a direct quote from the new dev policy. But let’s be clear, though, because all of this is full of nuance. It’s not that Android as an operating system literally can’t use adblockers, it’s that the Google Play Store won’t host them. This actually isn’t a drastic change, as you never able to install AdBlock Plus through the Play Store, now Google has just absolutely explicit that you can’t. But Android itself, as an operating system, can independently–from the Play Store–download and install adblocking software to your heart’s content.
But wait, there’s more nuance. While you can’t download adblocking apps themselves through the Play Store (which, again, it’s important to note that since the update to iOS 9, the Apple App Store has allowed for adblocking to not only be downloaded, but even sold, much to the profit of great app developers), the Play Store does allow you to download alternative web browsers that are actually built from the ground up to block ads. Oh…hoho…the contradiction is thick here. The AdBlock Browser (made by the aforementioned AdBlock Plus team), the newly reformed Brave Browser (by previous members of Mozilla), and even Adblock Fast for Samsung TouchWiz browsers are still available (and as an anarchist, myself, I love Adblock Fast’s logo, by the way).
And this is nothing to say of the fact that other browsers like the Dark Android favorites Mozilla Firefox for Android, and the FSF’s Icecat for Android can easily install the best adblocking plugin/software on the planet: uBlock Origin. And they can do so simply as a plugin within its own little add-on store. And I think the popular Android-only browser–Dolphin–can do the same. Frankly, I don’t know how in-app extensions and plugins are allowed by Google, considering that Amazon’s apps have often been taken down for offering books, apps, and other content completely independent of the Play Store. Perhaps the allowance of browser extensions on Android won’t be long for this world (at least if they want to be listed in the Play Store).
SIDE NOTE: Claims would be made that Amazon broke Play Store rules by selling things to Android users outside of Google’s In-app Purchases model. That’s fair, and Amazon has similar challenges on iOS. Browser plug-ins on Android are completely free, but they would still seem to be interfering with Google’s business model for Android, which is largely ad-based.
This is one of the more unbelievable contradictions I’ve seen from Alphabet/Google. Again, it’s not a change in policy or in how things have been done in the past, but it is an explicit “declaration of war” on one of the most important-to-use privacy and security technologies developed in the past decade (that being adblocking). But again, it may not be a contradiction for long. The AdBlock Browser was originally only available as a separate download from the Play Store, likely because the company behind it was concerned that it broke Google’s tyrannical Terms of Service in the Play Store. This explicit statement from Google on adblocking may just be warning shot that those concerns were right.
All of this leads to one of the more important points I try to highlight at the Dark Android Project and on my tech podcast Sovryn Tech. We need either more app stores/repositories (like F-Droid), or people need to get used to doing what they’ve done on PCs for years: You’ll have to go to the app developers website and download the apps you’d like from there (and app developers would have to put in auto-updaters to their software). Their are arguments for the latter option being impractical, but for the apps that matter (apps from The Guardian Project or Open Whisper Systems), I don’t see any reason this can’t become the norm. Again, alternative app repositories is a fine solution, too.
Even though Apple now allows for adblockers, the moral of the story here is the same for them as it is for Alphabet/Google. When you don’t have completely open source systems, and you rely on distribution through monolithic corporations, regardless of what good things or bad things that offer you, you are subject to their whims. If Apple changes its mind, you don’t get to adblock anymore (not with ease, anyway). If Google changes its mind? That’s great if they do, but then you’re still subject to them changing their mind once again.
Again, not necessarily new news here, but I suppose if there’s anything to take away from this, at least now we know where Alphabet/Google stands on the issue of adblocking. And they are clearly not on the side of the individual. But, hey, it’s not like they ever were.