YouTube’s Ad Blocker Detection Believed to Break EU Privacy Law

All versions of YouTube’s ad blocker detection apparently use a JavaScript program that runs in the client browser, although YouTube says that it could use noninvasive server-side methods to identify whether a video ad served to a user has not been played.

Hanff says that YouTube’s client-side detection code meets the description, in Article 5(3) of the ePrivacy directive 2002/58/EC, of a process used to “gain access to information stored in the terminal equipment of a subscriber or user.” If that’s the case, the user must be provided with “clear and comprehensive information” about what this information will be used for and be given the “right to refuse such processing.”

Users will be familiar with this process from the cookie consent forms that appear whenever a website wishes to capture nonessential information about them and their browser. Right now, neither an explicit notification nor an opt-out are displayed when YouTube obtains data about whether ad blocking tools may be active on one’s device or network connection.

A YouTube representative tells WIRED that “ads support a diverse ecosystem of creators globally and allow billions to access their favorite content on YouTube. The use of ad blockers violate[s] YouTube’s Terms of Service.”

YouTube’s current terms, last updated on January 5, 2022, don’t explicitly mention the use of ad blocking tools, nor any detection measures, although a Permissions and Restrictions clause that forbids user activity to “circumvent, disable, fraudulently engage, or otherwise interfere with the Service” could be read as covering this scenario.

But Hanff maintains that “under EU Consumer Protection Law, you’re not legally allowed to enforce any terms in the contract which infringe on the fundamental rights and freedoms of an EU resident.” The reason cookie consent forms are so intrusive is because consent for device access can’t be bundled up with other terms and conditions.

YouTube obviously wants to make money—that server bandwidth isn’t going to pay for itself. In 2022, ad-free YouTube Premium had 80 million subscribers, while YouTube reported ad revenue of $7.95 billion in the third quarter of 2023 alone.

Priced at $13.99 (or €12.99 in Europe), YouTube Premium’s primary benefit is ad-free video and music streaming. But if you can use an ad blocker to obtain most of the benefits of a subscription, there’s little incentive to pay.

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