The idea that Google, the web's biggest advertising company, is reportedly preparing to launch an ad blocker sounds absurd on its face. It's a bit like a jewelry store hiring a ring of diamond thieves or the postal service unleashing a pack of roving neighborhood dogs. But it's more understandable when you consider one fundamental truth about ad blocking companies: They don't exist to block ads — they exist to serve as middlemen between ads and consumers. The biggest ad blockers charge the biggest advertising vendors to let their ads pass through their software. They're better described as ad filters than ad blockers. The mere existence of ad blockers highlights a big part of the problem. If you've spent any time online, you know advertising is a mess. The industry knows this, too. That's why ad blockers are terrifying to most, but looked on by some as a possible blessing in disguise. Conceptually, ad blockers aren't all that different from advertising platforms like Google which can (and do) filter ads. Both parties ultimately make money by showing people ads. In that sense, Google can beat ad blockers at their own game, using its own ad blocker to nix the most annoying and harmful ads — which Google already avoids selling — until people no longer feel the need to download ad blockers at all. Doing so within the world's most widely used browser would add muscle to the industry's modest efforts to clean up its act in the face of the growing threat of ad blockers. "There's been fits and starts of these seeds of progress," says Eric Franchi, cofounder of the ad network Undertone. "But there are two ways it could rapidly accelerate: One is a move like this from Google." The other would be a hard-line stance on ad quality from a big marketer or agency, which Franchi admits would be less impactful. But many in the online ad industry are also weary about an ads standard-bearer with a huge business stake and an inordinate amount of market power. If Google follows through with its plans as reportedly stated, it will hurt certain publishers and companies. "Look to what Google is saying could be blocked and you're going to see where there could potentially be some losers," Franchi said. Most people in ad tech will readily admit that digital ads in general are annoying, intrusive, and sometimes even actively malicious. While there will always be a certain number of people who have zero tolerance for any online ads at all, the thinking — or at least the hope — within the industry is that making the ads less of a headache could go a long way towards curbing blocker growth. The industry's biggest trade group, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, has been attempting to purge the worst offenders for years through various sets of advertising standards. Two years ago, the bureau launched a set of guidelines called LEAN aimed at setting the bar for what's acceptable. More recently, a host of companies — Google among them — launched an arm within the group called the Coalition for Better Ads, which scores ads based on a checklist of user-friendly criteria. Instead of eliminating the worst ads, though, the rules have generally served to bifurcate where they appear, according to Scott Cunningham, a prominent digital publishing and marketing consultant. More respectable sites have taken steps towards getting rid of bad ads, but plenty still exist on the rest of the web. "Do I think the quality of ads has improved? Probably not," Cunningham says. "[Premium publishers] have made great progress, but the internet's a big place." Some platforms have tried to cede more control to users over what kinds of ads they see. The Rubicon Project, one of the biggest automated advertising platforms on the web, launched such a tool late last year. "This is a nice in-between," Rubicon Project CEO and founder Frank Addante said in an interview at the time, referring to the feature as a compromise with ad blockers. "Maybe I'm an optimist but I generally think that people do want information ... as long as it's something they're interested in." Others in the industry have started smaller, more transparent ad exchanges free of some of the shadiness of massive-scale alternatives. But most of these efforts have an essential shortcoming — they do little to actually remove the most detrimental ads. Many ad tech professionals say that even a small minority of bad actors can go a long way towards tainting the perception of the medium as a whole. The forcible removal of such ads, for which there's clearly still a business incentive, requires clout. And in the current duopolistic digital ads market, that means Facebook or Google. That's why it was seen as a big deal when Facebook took up the mantle against ad blockers last fall, the biggest company yet to do so. The ramifications of Facebook's decision were limited to its own walled garden, however. The crackdown was also derailed by a protracted battle with open-source developers intent on undermining it. Google, which places ads across thousands of websites in the open web, would no doubt have more of a rippling impact. As the rest of the ad industry was attempting to shape up, Google was exercising its own influence to improve ads by banning some of the more grating formats from its platforms. But at the same time, it was also quietly paying off Eyeo, the company behind the world's most popular ad blocking service, AdBlock Plus, to give its ads a pass. That made for some cognitive dissonance in the IAB, which has denounced ad blockers as "terrorists" and "highway robbery," while Google, its biggest member, funded them. As recently as last November, Google also maintained that it wouldn't pre-install a blocker in Chrome. Now that it reportedly is considering an ad blocker, the company obviously can't just shut out all non-Google ads; such a decree would be blatantly anti-competitive, and Google's Chrome blocker would likely face scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission as it is. Instead, Google will let the rubric determined by the Coalition for Better Ads inform its software, an arrangement many in the ad industry seem to find agreeable. "This is a positive development for the industry," Michael Korsunsky, chief marketing officer at ad network MGID, said in an email. "At the end of the day, agreeing on and enforcing objective advertising standards, with inevitable participation from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, will be significantly more likely than allowing one private company to determine what makes an ad acceptable." Google is said to hold an inordinate amount of sway in the Coalition for Better Ads, and some industry figures say that the group will never rule in a way that would hurt Google's own bottom line. That would be fine if Google's profit motive aligned with the rest of its fellow IAB members. Instead, Google gets the vast bulk of its revenue — nearly 80 percent — from search ads. The third-party display units over which the coalition presides are more of an afterthought in its balance sheet. It's not clear how much weight Google will place on keeping its browser user-friendly versus that relatively small part of its ads business, but it's possible the company's priorities won't match those of its peers on the coalition. "Of course we have concerns about Google's outsized role in any ad blocking discussions," said Jason Kint, CEO of the top-tier publisher trade group Digital Content Next, which represents the likes of the New York Times, ESPN, and Vox Media. "This is critical, industry-wide work to solve consumer-driven issues, [from] which Google is almost entirely immune." On the other hand, Eyeo is launching its own inter-corporate coalition meant to determine which ads are fit to be unblocked — the company's attempt to solidify its place in the industry. The 11-person board was the product of a series of meetings across the United States and Europe, which industry professionals either attended begrudgingly or boycotted out of principle. Eyeo claims AdBlock Plus only charges companies that command a certain traffic threshold (They must also meet the board's quality standards). The rest of the decisions as to which ads are allowed would fall to the board. But many in the industry have criticized the German company's lack of transparency as well as its antithetical business model. Google's ad blocker could provide a more agreeable alternative — and possibly cheaper one, too, as it is expected to use industry standards rather than pay-to-play tactics. While Google isn't an ideal leader in this war, for advertising companies, it's the lesser of two evils.