Senate building US

FTC called on to investigate ad whitelisting

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Democratic Senator Ron Wyden has requested a federal investigation into alleged anticompetitive behaviour in the ad blocking industry.

Not all ad blockers are created equal; some ad blockers show users ads which they have not consented to see. This is because some companies pay large sums of money to have their ads whitelisted by ad blockers.

Eyeo, which owns Adblock Plus (the world’s most popular free adblocker), has accepted fees to have non-intrusive ads whitelisted for Adblock Plus users since its 'Acceptable Ads' programme was established in 2011. According to a Financial Times report, companies which have paid for whitelisting include Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

In 2015, the Acceptable Ads programme was opened to competing ad blocks, with AdBlock quickly joining the programme and automatically permitting whitelisted ad companies to track and target its users without their consent.

Wyden has argued that this practice is unethical because users are not aware of them, with millions of people having downloaded ad blockers which claimed to block all ads. In a letter to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) chair Joseph Simon, he pointed out that the FTC has made clear that when one company acquires another and changes privacy promises already made to consumers, existing users must be asked for consent to opt into any new privacy practices.

“I urge the FTC to open an investigation into unfair, deceptive and anti-competitive practices in the ad blocking industry,” he wrote in his letter. “The FTC should also act to ensure that ad blockers are far more transparent with consumers.

“Ad blocks that whitelist ads in exchange for payments from ad companies should be required to prominently disclose this to existing users whenever they are shown an ad from a paying advertiser and to new or potential users when they are downloading or installing the ad blocker.”

The FTC confirmed that it has received Wyden’s letter.

Wyden is recognised as one of the most active tech hawks in Washington. He is currently scrutinising Amazon Ring over its privacy practices, and has written or sponsored bills to tackle bias in the tech industryhand control over personal data back to individuals, and to improve the security of IOT devices.

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