Adblock Plus and other ad blockers that whitelist ads from paying companies engage in deceptive and unfair practices, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) says in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission.
“Hundreds of millions of consumers around the world have downloaded and installed software tools that purport to block online ads. In turn, the largest ad companies -- including Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Verizon Media -- have quietly paid millions of dollars to some of the largest ad blocking software companies in order to be able to continue to track and target consumers with ads,” Wyden says in his request for an investigation into the ad blocking industry.
Ad-blocking companies that accept payment to whitelist ads should prominently disclose the practice to consumers, Wyden says.
“This will enable consumers to have the information they need to easily evaluate and compare the effectiveness of ad blockers,” he writes.
Eyeo's Adblock Plus began operating its “Acceptable Ads” program in 2011, which exempting certain paying companies from the ad-blocking filter.
Eyeo has said those companies' ads must comply with standards set by a committee. Adblock Plus users can also opt out of the whitelist and configure the program to block all ads.
In October of 2015, the company began allowing competing ad blocking programs to use the whitelist and receive payments, according to Wyden.
The ad-filtering company “AdBlock” -- sold to an unknown buyer the same day Eyeo offered its whitelist to other companies -- not only began using the whitelist, but “automatically 'upgraded' millions of AdBlock users, without their affirmative consent, into tracking and targeting by major ad companies,” Wyden alleges.
He writes that the decision to “upgrade” people who used ad blockers to new versions that included whitelists “likely violated federal law.”
Wyden adds that the FTC has previously held that when one company acquires another, the purchaser must obtain users' affirmative consent before changing privacy practices.
Ben Williams, director of advocacy at Eyeo, says the company “fully briefed” the FTC in 2016 about the company's whitelist program.
"We are 100% transparent with consumers about how Acceptable Ads work, how we whitelist, how we monetize, and how to turn the Acceptable Ads option off (and thereby block all ads),” Williams states. "We stand by Acceptable Ads and the compromise it strikes, and as a company seek to give consumers control over a fair, balanced web."
The FTC previously received a complaint about ad blockers from the News Media Alliance (formerly the Newspaper Association of America), which argued in 2016 that ad filtering companies undermine publishers' ability to finance their websites.