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The Unseen War: YouTube vs. Ad Blockers – A Deep Dive into the Tech Strategies


YouTube has recently taken decisive action against users employing ad blockers on its site. After a few instances of content consumption, the platform will cease video service for those with ad blockers active. To bypass this restriction, users will likely need to disable their ad blockers, or they can opt for an ad-free experience by subscribing to the Premium service for a fee.

While this move may seem aggressive and caught ad-blocking companies off guard, it was not entirely unexpected. YouTube had been testing similar measures for months. Prior to this latest crackdown, the Google-owned video service has been entangled in an ongoing conflict, akin to a game of cat-and-mouse or an arms race, with ad-blocking software. YouTube consistently introduces new methods to deliver ads to viewers with ad blockers, prompting ad blockers to devise counter-strategies.

According to a blog post by the ad- and tracker-blocking company Ghostery, YouTube employs various techniques to outsmart ad blockers. These tactics include embedding ads directly into videos, making it challenging for ad blockers to distinguish between content and ads, or serving ads from the same domain as the video, deceiving filters designed to block ads from third-party domains.

It’s worth noting that YouTube is not unique in these efforts; many digital publishers also make similar attempts to thwart ad blockers. YouTube’s actions may garner more attention due to its widespread popularity. AdGuard CTO Andrey Meshkov highlighted, “Even when they run a test on a share of users… the number of affected people is very high.”

Simultaneously, as outlined by Krzysztof Modras, Ghostery’s director of product and engineering, it holds true that YouTube, being one of the world’s largest publishers, consistently invests in strategies to overcome ad blocking. These investments have proven effective, rendering many commonly employed ad blocking techniques ineffective on the site. Traditional approaches such as DNS filtering, network filtering, and cosmetic filtering, which previously thwarted ads, no longer yield the same results.

Modras notes a heightened frequency in YouTube’s adaptation of methods, making it challenging for ad blockers to keep up. To counteract changes in ad delivery and ad blocker detection, block lists now require daily updates and sometimes even more frequent adjustments. While various players in the industry are innovating, some ad blockers find it increasingly difficult to stay abreast of these dynamic alterations.

The task of keeping pace with YouTube’s strategies is expected to become even more formidable next year when Google’s Chrome browser adopts the Manifest V3 standard. This standard significantly restricts the capabilities of extensions. Modras explains that under Manifest V3, when an ad blocker seeks to update its blocklist—a process that may need to occur multiple times a day—it must undergo a comprehensive update and review. This review period can extend from a few hours to several weeks, introducing an additional layer of gatekeeping that hinders the agility of ad blockers in responding to new ads and online tracking methods.

For many users, the clash between YouTube and ad blockers has largely operated behind the scenes, or at least remained easily overlooked—until now. The recent implementation of a formidable barrier alters this landscape significantly, compelling users to adjust their behavior if they wish to access YouTube videos. Ad blocking companies argue that it’s more of a policy shift than a technical breakthrough, indicative of YouTube’s newfound willingness to risk alienating its user base.

According to Meshkov, this move by YouTube is not entirely novel, as many publishers have taken a similar approach. However, the sheer scale of YouTube sets it apart, impacting a vast number of users and necessitating substantial resources to maintain these defenses on the publisher’s end. Meshkov emphasized the substantial expense and ongoing maintenance involved, requiring a dedicated team—a commitment only a handful of companies can afford.

As is customary, ad blockers are evolving to adapt, even though it demands increased effort from their users. Modras highlighted that Ghostery witnessed a significant surge in both uninstalls and installs per day throughout much of October. Additionally, there was a notable 30 percent uptick in downloads on Microsoft Edge, where Ghostery’s ad blocker continued to function on YouTube for a certain duration. This surge in activity suggests users are swiftly experimenting with different products and strategies to circumvent YouTube’s anti-ad block measures, discarding them when they cease to be effective.

Meanwhile, uBlock Origin appears to remain effective on YouTube. However, a comprehensive Reddit post providing guidance on avoiding the platform’s ad-block detection mechanisms points out that due to YouTube’s regular changes to their detection scripts, users might still encounter brief periods when pop-up warnings and anti-adblock walls appear between script changes on the platform’s end or filter updates on uBlock’s side. It’s worth noting that uBlock Origin’s functionality on Chrome may cease next year due to the anticipated adoption of Manifest V3. Moreover, Google allegedly started diminishing YouTube’s load times on alternative browsers as part of its anti-ad block initiative. While some reports could not verify these intentionally slowed load times, users seemed to bypass them using a “user-agent switcher” to disguise one browser as another.

The persistence of functionality in certain ad blockers can be attributed to a novel approach known as Scriptlet injection. This technique employs scripts to finely manipulate website behavior. For instance, an ad blocker could use a scriptlet to eliminate a cookie with a specific name or halt the execution of JavaScript when a web page attempts to access a page property with a given name.

On YouTube, Modras explains that scriptlets can modify the data before it’s utilized by the page script. For instance, a scriptlet may search for specific data identifiers and remove them, presenting a nuanced approach capable of blocking ads seamlessly intertwined with website functionality without affecting overall functionality.

Scriptlet injection is increasingly pivotal in the crucial task of evading detection for ad blockers. According to Meshkov from AdGuard, teams like his are actively engaged in addressing this aspect, focusing on avoiding activities that might signal their presence to websites. Scriptlets are also utilized to counter common fingerprinting functions employed by websites to identify ad blockers.

Currently, scriptlet injection stands out as the most promising approach and is described by Modras as the “only reliable way of ad blocking on YouTube” at present. Meshkov qualifies this statement by noting its accuracy when confined to browser extensions, the predominant distribution method for popular ad blockers. However, he highlights alternative methods such as network-level ad blockers and alternative YouTube clients like NewPipe as viable approaches. In a recent AdGuard blog post, additional steps for users were outlined, including checking for filter updates, ensuring the absence of multiple ad blockers, and utilizing a desktop ad-blocking app, which is presumed to be more challenging to detect than a browser extension. AdGuard provides both network-level blocking and desktop apps.

Contrastingly, AdBlock Plus, a prominent ad blocker, has chosen not to circumvent YouTube’s measures. Vegard Johnsen, Chief Product Officer at AdBlock Plus developer eyeo, expresses respect for YouTube’s initiative to initiate a conversation with users about how content is monetized.

Referring to the presently independently managed Acceptable Ads program, which eyeo established and actively participates in, Johnsen conveyed, “the vast majority of our users have truly embraced the fact that there will be ads… we’ve made it clear we don’t believe in circumvention.”

Likewise, a spokesperson from YouTube reiterated that the platform’s ads contribute to “a diverse ecosystem of creators globally” and emphasized that “the use of ad blockers violates YouTube’s Terms of Service.”

In the ongoing struggle between YouTube and ad blockers, Modras asserted that his side possesses a significant advantage due to being open source and being able to tap into knowledge from the broader community.

“Scriptlet injection is already gaining more potency, making it increasingly challenging for anti-ad blockers to detect,” he stated. “In some ways, the current scenario has triggered an arms race. YouTube inadvertently has spurred improvements in ad blockers, as the newfound knowledge and techniques developed within the YouTube platform are applicable to other ad and tracking systems.”

Even if a majority of users find the new countermeasures frustrating and opt to whitelist YouTube on their preferred ad-blocking tool, Modras indicates that ad blockers can still impact the platform’s financial performance. He explains, “If users disable ad blocking only on YouTube while maintaining protection on other websites during their browsing, the platform will quickly realize its inability to effectively target ads to these users.” This is because YouTube lacks data about user activity on those other sites.

Despite YouTube’s actions, Meshkov suggests that it’s unlikely for other publishers to implement a similar blockade. This reluctance stems from the fact that very few services wield the same level of influence over an entire media ecosystem—owning both the most popular video-sharing service and the most widely used web browser for accessing it. Meshkov emphasizes, “YouTube is in a unique position as it is de facto a monopoly,” a distinction not applicable to most other publishers.

Nevertheless, even in the face of these challenges, fervent ad block advocates remain undeterred in their mission. As Meshkov straightforwardly puts it, “YouTube’s policy is just a good motivation to do it better.”

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