China Is Banning Ad Blockers (But It Might Also Not Be)

chinaadblockingIt’s probably not a good idea to use Google Translate on legal language.

Roughly two weeks ago, the Chinese government released online regulations that include new rules governing paid search results, embedded links, video ads and email advertising.

A buried clause within the edict also seems to outlaw ad blocking – and when Adblock Plus realized that, the popular ad blocker penned an irate blog post Wednesday that took an unlikely page out of IAB chief Randall Rothenberg’s playbook on bombastic language, threatening to pull ABP from China “to protect users from any wrath.”

But there might be a small misunderstanding. Rather than a ban on ad blockers, the clause could be more about combating ad injectors and malware. Right now, the intention of the language is somewhat ambiguous.

For those who speak Mandarin, the clause reads: “第十六条 互联网广告活动中不得有下列行为: 1) 提供或者利用应用程序、硬件等对他人正当经营的广告采取拦截、过滤、覆盖、快进等限制措施; (2) 利用网络通路、网络设备、应用程序等破坏正常广告数据传输,篡改或者遮挡他人正当经营的广告,擅自加载广告.”

For those who don’t, that roughly translates to – “Term 16. Internet ad activities shall not have the following acts: (1) To provide or utilize any application, hardware or so on to block, filter, cover or skip another’s legitimate ad; (2) To utilize a network gateway, device or application to damage the data transmission of legitimate ads or to tamper and block the legitimate ads of others.”

That could be interpreted as a prohibition against ad blockers, but Josh Ong, director of global brand strategy at Cheetah Mobile, doesn’t read it that way.

“The Chinese government’s new rules seem mostly aimed at shutting down predatory and fraudulent advertising businesses and practices that have popped up,” Ong said. “I’d expect implementation to focus on cleaning up the bad actors first.”

And there are a lot of bad actors. Just this month, a Chinese mobile advertising company called Yingmob was caught distributing malware on 10 million Android devices to the tune of $300,000 per month in stolen ad revenue.

But there are also a lot of legit companies, and China’s mobile ad market has huge potential. According to Strategy Analytics, digital spend in APAC is on tap to rise more than 18%, to just shy of $60 billion.

“Because of this, there are a lot of participants coming to the market, and these companies are uneven in terms of ethics and technology, which may cause unfair competition,” said Ted Gao, VP of Chinese mobile data platform TalkingData.

For example, some shady companies block ads coming from other companies in order to publish their own, he said, or they sometimes use system permissions to kill other people’s ads.

“The scale of the market forces the government to pay attention,” Gao said. “The demand for a standardized and sustaining market is what motivates the government to design certain policies.”

If the government’s new regs do have any impact on ad blocking, it’ll likely be on the default features built into the browser products provided by large companies, such as UC Browser, owned by Alibaba.

“But for other independent plug-in developers, this will not change what they choose to do,” said Andy Fan, founder and CEO of RTB Asia, a fraud detection solution based out of Shanghai. “Consumers will still have many options to block ads if they want to. Since ad blocking is so technical, it cannot be changed by a regulation.”

If the Chinese government does have ad blockers in the crosshairs, Fan’s feeling is that the regs will only be “mildly” enforced in that regard.

“Upgrading browsers or uninstalling plugins is not an easy task and difficult to verify,” Fan said. “But the message may be strongly delivered to major internet companies to let them know now to officially get involved in ad blocking.”

For its part, though, ABP is calling BS.

In his blog post, Adblock Plus operations manager Ben Williams accused the Chinese government of robbing consumers of “what has become a basic right” – the right to exercise control and protect themselves from predatory practices online. It would be a bit ironic if Chinese regulators try to institute laws to crack down on the purveyors of bad ads by removing one way that users have of protecting themselves.

“Recently, in China itself, actually, almost 10 million Android smartphones were infected by malware that generates fake ad clicks,” Williams said, referring to the Yingmob incident in early July. “Now, I’m not saying that those users would necessarily have been completely safe if they’d been running an ad blocker, but ad blocking and other tools that would fall under the ban help to mitigate or obliterate that risk.”

 

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