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Why Google bans ad blockers, but is actually fine with ad-blocking browsers

Ad blockers are nothing new, but they strangely aren't allowed in the Google Play Store.

Published onJanuary 27, 2019

Ad blockers are nothing new. They’ve existed as web browser extensions for many years and a few Android apps even do it across the OS. However, there’s an interesting little conundrum. The Play Store allows web browsers with ad-block, but not system-wide ad blockers. It seems hypocritical at first — both types of apps block ads — but there is a difference.

Let’s take a look.

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The difference is key

Let’s start with the fundamental difference between web browsers with ad blocking and ad blockers as a whole. A web browser with ad block only blocks advertising within its own app. A proper ad-block app only blocks advertising in other apps. That’s a small, but extremely important difference.

Apps that disrupt, damage, or otherwise mess with how other apps work are strictly prohibited in the Google Play Store. You can find the relevant rule here. If you read down to the bullet list on that link, the very first rule specifically uses ad blockers as an example. This same ruling also bans apps like Lucky Patcher and other hack tools that give you freemium game purchases for free:

We don’t allow apps that interfere with, disrupt, damage, or access in an unauthorized manner the user’s device, other devices or computers, servers, networks, application programming interfaces (APIs), or services, including but not limited to other apps on the device, any Google service, or an authorized carrier’s network.

Tons of apps and games use ads to generate most of their revenue. In an interview with Android Authority, the developers of Alto’s Adventure theorized that the average person on Android would rather watch an ad than pay for anything. Those developers earn 99 percent of their revenue from ads and a paltry one percent from in-app purchases. If ad block, Lucky Patcher, and other similar tools existed on mobile like they do on the web, that ratio would be vastly different and earnings vastly lower. Even the developer of Flappy Bird made $50,000 per day solely on advertisements.

Even if the user was never going to tap the ad, impressions — when someone just views an ad — still generate a good deal of money for developers (read more about how ad impressions work here).

It’s understandable why the rule is in place. When developers get paid, Google also gets paid. Ad blockers and apps like Lucky Patcher mess with the revenue streams of both. A rule against such behavior makes perfect sense. This rule also prevents a lot of other bad behavior like bypassing the system power management, abusive API usage, and apps that circumvent security protections. This rule also affects a lot of root user apps, which is rather unfortunate.

The rule that bans ad blockers is the same rule that bans Lucky Patcher and similar apps.

Ad blockers on Android

Google controls ads on Google Play

Google seems to care about the ad experience on Android. There is a whole section in the Developer Policy Center specifically for advertising. The company bans the following types of ads and behaviors:

  • Deceptive Ad Placement: Developers cannot make ads that act as part of the app’s UI. If an app has a button that looks like it does something within the app, but just opens an ad up instead, the Play Store will ban the app.
  • Lock Screen Monetization: Apps can’t use the lock screen for ad placement unless it’s a lock screen app. Alto’s Adventure can’t show ads on your lock screen, but something like Hi Locker can.
  • Disruptive Ads: Developers cannot use full page (also known as interstitial) ads with no clear way to dismiss the ad.
  • Interference with Apps, Device Functionality, and so on: Advertisements cannot affect device functionality, other apps, or basically anything else. Ads must be in the app that provides them. This is basically the same rule preventing ad blockers in the first place, but for advertising. Ad-blockers can’t affect how other apps work and neither can advertisements. At least it’s fair.
  • Inappropriate Ads: Advertising that doesn’t follow a strict ethical code are banned. For instance, you can’t put dating website ads in a kid’s game.
  • Android Advertising ID rules: There are also a bunch of rules when using the Android Advertising ID. You can read all of those here.

These rules don’t get rid of all of the annoying ads — you still get full page video ads with sound — but they limit the worst offenders. On the internet there are no such rules for advertisers.

If you see or know of an app breaking one of these rules, fill out this form and report them.

Firefox Focus ad blockers trackers

Let’s go back to web browsers with ad-block

Google could put a blanket ban on ad blocking in all of its forms, but there really isn’t any reason to. Google isn’t actually against ad blocking, it’s against apps on Android affecting how other apps on Android work. It’s more of a security issue than an ethical one. Even Google Chrome has ad blocking.

There are a bunch of other potential reasons why web browsers get to stay and native ad blockers have to go. The App Store also allows web browsers with ad block and Apple’s Safari has ad and tracker blocking for better privacy. You can, of course, get desktop level browser ad blocking on Windows, Linux, and MacOS. Thus, even Google’s biggest competitor allows web browsers with ad blockers. It would be silly for Google to be the odd man out, to so to speak.

We don’t really think that’s why any of that is the case, though. All the evidence points to ad blockers affecting how other apps work. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that Google cares one way or another about the actual practice of ad blocking.

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As long as Google prevents apps from messing with one another, ad blockers will continue to be banned from the Play Store. It’s fine to be mad about. Again, we’re not defending or criticizing the behavior. We just wanted to know why.

Sound off in the comments if you want to talk about it further!

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