Friday, 15 March 2013

Google boots ad blockers from Play Store: is it because of Adblock Plus?

Google finds an excuse to block ad blockers

Google lives from advertising, so for obvious reasons they're not happy with apps that block ads. But Google also tries to maintain an image of neutrality, and keeping ad blocking apps out of its Play Store doesn't go well with maintaining that image.

That used to be no problem, because the popular ad blockers AdFree and AdAway require root access to write their blocklists to the hosts file in the Android system folders. Because ad blocking required a rooted phone or tablet, over 95% of all Android devices didn't block any ads.

But then Adblock Plus entered the scene. This app is not as good as AdFree and AdAway, but is has one feature that poses a major threat to Googles business model: Adblock Plus doesn't need root.

Adblock Plus made ad blocking accessible to the masses, so Google had to think of something to keep the pennies flowing in.

And Google found something. Their small print for Play Store publishers says something about not interfering with the functions of third party services:

"You agree that you will not engage in any activity with the Market, including the development or distribution of Products, that interferes with, disrupts, damages, or accesses in an unauthorized manner the devices, servers, networks, or other properties or services of any third party including, but not limited to, Android users, Google or any mobile network operator."

It looks like Google sees banner farms as third party services that deserve free reign on your Android phone or tablet, so they kicked the three most popular ad blocking apps out of their app store.

Of course all the tech sites on the web screamed bloody murder. By removing ad blockers from the Play Store Google did an excellent job at advertising their existence. I'm sure that more people are blocking Googles advertisements now.

Who needs Google to block ads?

Google didn't kick out all ad blockers yet. ROM Toolbox has a built-in ad blocker, and as I write this it's still alive and kicking in the Google Play Store. But its maker said he'll have to pull the ad block feature out. Not that it really matters, because there's no shortage of good ad blockers. They may be gone from the Play Store, but you can easily get 'em elsewhere.

AdAway is my favourite ad blocker. Gone from the Play Store, but ready for grabs on (oh, the irony!) And if you want to get it the easy way and be notified of updates, just download it from open source Android app store F-Droid.

AdFree is a good ad killer too. The AdFree site still links to the dead Google Play Store page, but I guess that will be fixed soon. For now you can download AdFree from (yes, really)

Adblock Plus is the Android flavour of the famous Firefox and Chrome plugin. You can grab it directly from their own site. It's not as good as AdAway or AdFree, but Adblock Plus doesn't require root access so it works for everyone.

Lucky Patcher can strip the code that adds Google ads out of your apps. It doesn't remove ads from other banner farms, and it doesn't clean out ads from websites, but it lets you yank the ads from the biggest ad pusher out of your apps without altering your hosts file (AdAway and AdFree) or running a local proxy server (AdBlock Plus) on your Android device.

Note: because Android requires that apps are signed, switching from a Play Store version to an F-Droid or sideloaded version of your ad blocker can pop up signature erro messages. If that happens, you need to uninstall the Play Store version before you can install another version of the same app with a different signature. If you don't want to lose your settings and custom block lists, back up the app settings with a backup app like Titanium (the free version will do), and restore the settings (only the settings, not the app) after you've switched to the non-Play Store version.

Block those ads!

Whether ad blockers are a gift from heaven or the root of all that's evil is topic of a never-ending debate. My take: websites and app developers have the right to try to show ads on your screen, but you have no obligation to let those ads in unless you explicitly agreed to. Most apps in the Play Store don't tell you that they have ads or where they come from, and adware is usually accompanied by screenshots that don't show any ads, so you don't have to allow their ads into your Android. Come to think of it, most apps in the Google Play Store don't come with any terms of use at all, so feel free to use 'em any way you like and block whatever you want to block.

Does blocking ads kill free apps and sites? Probably not. The vast majority of app developers don't make any money from their ads. But even if ad blocking kills free stuff that's not the end of the world. It just means that the market has spoken and advertising is no longer a viable way to monetize apps and websites. And if that business model reaches the end of its life then those that depend on it will have to think of a new business model. Of course advertisers can keep their business model alive by making their ads smaller, less flashy, and reducing the frequency with which they appear in apps and websites. The more-is-better approach to advertising is the reason why all those ad blockers were invented in the first place.

Do you see any ads on this site? If you don't, your ad blocker is doing its job. Congrats!

AdAway review on android underground
AdAway on
AdAway on F-Droid

AdFree at
AdFree from Google Docs (direct app download link)

Adblock Plus

Lucky Patcher

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  1. I don't agree that more users will now block ads. That might be true for advanced users, but the majority of them is not advanced. Downloading the app manually and enabling installation from unknown sources is more complicated for the majority than you might think. Plus, the average Joe won't bother even if they knew how to to do it and will watch ads instead.

  2. You got a point there. Maybe I should rephrase it to:

    "Ad blocking will become more popular among users that know how to sideload apps, and the media coverage on Google's decision to ban ad blockers will encourage more people to learn how to sideload apps so that they can try those ad blocking apps for themselves."

    Btw, lets hope that Google won't fight firewalls with its small print. If DroidWall, AfWall, avast, and LBE keep apps offline then the firewall itself "interferes with, disrupts, damages, or accesses in an unauthorized manner the devices, servers, networks, or other properties or services of any third party." And if Android firewalls get more sophisticated so they can block specific IP addresses or domain names you could simply import the blacklists from the ad blockers into them.

    Google's interpretation of its broadly formulated terms can be used against a lot of apps. By banning apps that can interfere with or disrupt "other properties or services of any third party" Google can boot all firewalls, permission managers, and VPN apps from its app store.