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Google is a prominent member of the Coalition for Better Ads, which developed the standards.

Tomi Setala/Bloomberg

Google makes its money from digital ads. So why is it blocking digital ads?

On Thursday, the company, owned by Alphabet Inc., will launch an advertising filter in its Chrome web browser. First announced in June, it will block ads on sites that fail a review process. Candidates for blocking include pop-up ads, those that cover more than a third of a smartphone screen and video ads that play automatically with sound.

The criteria for blocking are based on standards developed by an industry group called the Coalition for Better Ads, of which Google Inc. is a prominent member. Other members include advertising trade associations, ad buying firms such as GroupM and Omnicom Media Group, publishers such as News Corp. and Thomson Reuters and major advertisers such as Procter & Gamble Co.

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The stated purpose of this ad filtering, according to Google, is improving user experiences on the web. It is also meant to protect the business on which Google's digital empire is built: online ads, which sprang up on the web over time without much consultation. No one really asked the people using the internet just how much visual clobbering they found tolerable.

In response, some users leapt at technology to clean up the morass of ads in the digital landscape. By last year, 31 per cent of Americans and 27 per cent of Canadians were using ad-blocking software on their computers, according to consulting firm Deloitte – and the numbers were even higher for younger people. Deloitte predicts that at least a third of all computers in North America will have ad blockers installed this year. And its research shows that 20 per cent of Americans and 12 per cent of Canadians used an ad blocker on mobile devices last year, rates it also expects to grow this year.

That's a concern for Google, which sells ad space on its own search engine and its video-sharing site YouTube, as well as on a slew of other sites across the web and mobile apps.

Google isn't exactly hurting, yet: It drew US$95.4-billion in advertising revenue last year. But anyone reliant on the digital ad economy has reason to fear the growth in ad blocking, particularly publishers that rely on ads to fund the content they produce.

"One of the concerns with some of the ad blockers on the market is [that] when you download the ad blocker, it blocks all ads on all sites. And even sites that are focused on great ad experiences are collateral damage in those tools," Kelsey LeBeau, head of partnerships and ecosystem health at Google, said in an interview. "To the extent that users aren't driven to download ad blockers, we hope that helps some of the publishers that have great ad experiences."

While filtering out the worst ads is a positive step, executives at one prominent ad blocker doubt it will prevent people from using software such as the one it provides.

"We think that discerning, clever ad-blocker users will know the difference between what Google is doing and real ad blocking. They will still want to block YouTube video ads, Facebook ads and most other ad formats," said Ben Williams, head of operations and communications for Adblock Plus, in a statement.

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The Chrome blocker will go into effect if more than 7.5 per cent of the ads on a website violate the coalition standards, according to Google. In a review of 100,000 sites with the largest traffic in Europe and North America, Google found less than 1 per cent that would be blocked. Once publishers fix the problems, they can request a review to have their ads reinstated. Website owners could also access a report showing whether they were at risk of blocking ahead of time.

Publishers including Forbes, the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune have all made changes to be compliant, according to Google.

Chrome is not alone in limiting aspects of the ads that appear in its browser. Apple Inc.'s Safari browser and Mozilla's Firefox both offer options to scale back on ad tracking, and former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich launched a browser called Brave in 2016 with a built-in ad blocker.

"[Browsers] want to ensure a sustainable web ecosystem," Ms. LeBeau said. "They're trying to create an environment that can have long-term benefits for businesses and publishers and advertisers and users."

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