Ad Filtering Dev Summit 2022 recap
The ad blocking community may not be the largest, but it’s very tightly knit. The developers of ad blockers and browsers, filters maintainers, software engineers, and independent specialists — all of them work hand in hand to find best solutions and provide best possible ad blocking. And since 2018, we all gather together once a year at the Ad Filtering Dev Summit to discuss the pressing issues of ad blocking world, to make sure that we are all on the same page and that we are working towards the same goals. After two years of Summit taking place online due to COVID, this fall we all were finally able to meet in person in Amsterdam. In this article we’ll recap the Summit and tell you everything about it that you need to know.
This Summit is a special one for AdGuard — it was the first time we were not only a participant, but also one of the two sponsors, along with eyeo. Besides that, per tradition, AdGuard’s CTO and co-founder Andrey Meshkov was one of the speakers at the event.
This year Andrey’s topic of choice was Manifest v3. And he was not alone: Manifest v3 is a new browser extension API for the world’s most popular browser Chrome. To put it simply, API is a set of instruments designed by browser developers for extension developers to use. The API "sets the tone", i.e. it defines what extensions can do and what they can’t. Manifest v3 completely changes the landscape in comparison to its predecessor, Manifest v2, and not for the better. Browser extensions based on Manifest v3 are less potent, there are more restrictions imposed on them by Chrome.
Ad blockers, of course, are not an exception and will suffer the consequences too. Andrey laid down the dangers of the upcoming launch of Manifest V3 and talked about the work of ad blocking extensions in the new reality.
Andrey Meshkov on ad blocking in Manifest v3
Manifest v3 has been on the cards for quite a while now, and despite the very grim predictions that we made initially (1, 2), apparently it is not the end of the world. We took it upon ourselves to demonstrate that by releasing the world’s very first Manifest v3-compatible ad blocking browser extension.
MV3-compatible AdGuard Browser Extension for Chrome
The main takeaway is that it works, which proves that blocking ads under MV3 will be possible. However, we had to make some sacrifices and find some non-trivial workarounds. If anything, the difficulties breed innovation, and we will continue to search for better ways to adapt. Felipe Erias Morandeira from a software consultancy company Igalia demonstrated this perfectly by adding a new type of declarative rules to Chrome. Watch him talk about it at Ad Filtering Dev Summit:
Felipe Erias Morandeira on control over static rules
Manifest v3 had been scheduled to release in January 2023 but was then pushed back half a year. Nonetheless, it will become a reality, the only question is "when exactly", and we as community can’t just ignore it. Anton Lazarev, an engineer from Brave, chose to talk about content blocking collaboration in a post-MV3 world at the Summit. Not every filter maintainer will have time and resources to modify their filter list (or even multiple lists) to the new reality of Manifest v3. This threatens a situation where some filters split into MV2/MV3 parts, and this isn’t healthy for ad blocking.
Anton Lazarev on content blocking collaboration after MV3
Another great example of community-sourced innovation, although not directly linked to Manifest v3, is the implementation of
:has() selector in Chrome. This task was set and sponsored by eyeo (the company behind Adblock Plus) and performed by Byungwoo Lee and Eric Meyer from Igalia. A nonconventional, yet valid solution — to improve the browser itself when your capabilities in terms of developing a browser extension are limited.
Byungwoo Lee and Eric Meyer on :has() selector
Reading about all the trouble that Manifest v3 will create for ad blockers, some people might have a distorted view of browser developers as some kind of “enemy” of ad filtering. But the truth is, browser developers are interested in making a great product for their users just as much as ad blockers' devs — for theirs. And a good browser nowadays is expected to provide tools for filtering content. The developers of Google (and other browsers) are staying in touch with ad blocking community, which is perfectly illustrated by Google dev team representatives participating in the Summit. They covered the known MV3 issues and introduced the new timeline…
Simeon Vincent and Google dev team with notes on Chrome
…as well as held a Q&A session along with developers from Mozilla and Brave:
Chrome, Mozilla, and Brave dev teams — Q&A session
While Manifest v3 undoubtedly was the talk of the town on the Ad Filtering Dev Summit, it wasn’t the only topic. For better or for worse, there are other problems that people working in this field have to face. Arjan van Leeuwen from Opera delivered a presentation about a very delicate issue — content filtering breaking websites from time to time:
Arjan van Leeuwen on content filtering breaking websites
In the same vein, Peter Lowe, the creator of the popular Peter Lowe’s blocklist filter list, told a funny little tale about the day when his list broke Twitter:
Peter Lowe on blocking popular trackers (and, accidentally, Twitter)
Content filtering may have started as removing literal ad banners from web pages, but today it is just as much, if not more, about privacy protection than about ad blocking. You hear "trackers thi" and "tracking that" from us all the time — because this is the reality we live in. Users’ personal data is something that every corporation is actively hunting and paying millions for, so it needs protection. And ad blockers are a natural place for that.
Several speakers devoted their time at the AFDS stage to privacy-related problems:
- Navigating between User Rights and the Web Economy by Rotem Dar, VP of Innovation, eyeo
- Building the Internet We All Want: Accurate Ads Measurement with No Tracking by Ben Savage, Software Engineer, Meta
- Intro into New Regulations by Laura De Boel, Partner, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati
- How New Regulations Are Shaking Up Adtech by Laura De Boel; Cornelius Witt, Group Data Protection Officer, eyeo; Udbhav Tiwari, Senior Manager Global Public Policy, Mozilla, and Aurelien Maehl, Senior Public Policy Manager, DuckDuckGo
- Web3: Regaining Control of Your Data by Ingo Rübe Founder, KILT Protocol
Content filtering can be many things, even science! This year’s summit offered its stage to several speakers with various academic backgrounds. What many of their presentations had in common is looking into the future of ad blocking. The idea of automatic ad recognition has been around for a very long time, but it still largely remains in the theoretical space. It is unlikely that robots will replace humans as filter maintainers in the foreseeable future, but any research in this direction inevitably arouses interest and often helps solving real-life ad filtering problems of today. Check out these speeches if this topic resonates with you:
- Automated Filter Rule Generation for Ad Blocking by Hieu Van Le, PhD Candidate, University of California, Irvine
- Machine Learning-powered Anti-tracking. Track Me if You Can! by Dr. Humera Noor Minhas, Director of Engineering, eyeo and Parinitha Hirehal, AI Product Manager, eyeo
- What’s the Next Era of Content Blockers? by Abdul Haddi Amjad, PhD Candidate, Virginia Tech University
- Breaking Advertising and Tracking Request Chains by Umar Iqbal, Postdoctoral Scholar, University of Washington
And here are some more presentations from the Summit by people of science, on a variety of different topics, in no particular order:
- An Audit of Facebook’s Political Ad Policy Enforcement by Athanasios Andreou, Researcher, Algorithmic Transparency Institute and Victor Le Pochat, imec-DistriNet, PhD Candidate, KU Leuven
- CookieWatcher: Countering First-Party ‘Cookieless’ Tracking by Shaoor Munir, PhD Candidate, UC Davis and Sandra Siby, PhD Candidate, EPFL
- Beyond Ad Filtering: Five Ideas for User Empowerment through the Browser by Arvind Narayanan, Professor, Princeton University
- Shedding Light on Problematic Content in Online Ads by Franziska Rösner, Associate Professor, University of Washington
So many great speakers, so many captivating presentations! We haven’t mentioned a couple more yet:
- Taking out the Trash by Gertrud Kolb, CTPO, eyeo
- Ad-Filtering Report Study Release by Kathrin Jennewein, PR Manager, eyeo
- Final words by Terry Taouss, President, Acceptable Ads Committee
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to watch every single presentation (although they’re all good!) but we hope that at least a couple has caught your eye.
Ad Filtering Dev Summit holds a very special place for the entire content filtering community. It offers opportunities that no other event does and brings us all closer together like nothing else. This year’s Summit was a definite success, and we’re looking forward to the next one. Surely, it will have it’s own hot topics and new challenges, but together as a community we will be able to tackle anything that goes our way.