Alibaba's Popular Ad-Blocking Web Browser Hits Bump in China

Company Says It Will Comply With New Rules Cracking Down on Practice

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UC Browser's ad-blocking capabilities have been dealt a blow in China
UC Browser's ad-blocking capabilities have been dealt a blow in China Credit:

UC Browser, a web browser owned by China's Alibaba Group, has been a major factor in the spread of ad-blocking in Asia. It claims over 400 million active users, many of them mobile users in China and India. Ad-blocking is built right into its browsers, which have "more users than all other forms of ad blocking, combined," according to a May report from PageFair. The company once touted its blocking capabilities with a cartoon showing a squirrel -- the animal on its logo -- whitewashing over advertising posters on a wall. "Block the ads, clean the world," was the cartoon's caption.

But UC Browser's vision of ad-free user experience has hit a roadblock in China, where the government is enacting new measures cracking down on ad blocking.

China's new advertising regulations prohibit applications or hardware to intercept, filter, cover, fast forward or limit other people's legitimate ads. The rule is vague, but the consensus among legal experts is that most or all forms of ad blocking will probably be banned. Some say the phrasing suggests blocking will still be permitted for ads that break China's rules on internet advertising. And there are more and more rules, some of them very detailed; pop-up ads have to be closable in one click, for example.

A spokeswoman for UCWeb, acquired by Alibaba in 2014, said the company would comply when the rules go into effect Sept. 1. The change will not affect versions of the browser outside China, she said.

The new regulations come amid a general tightening up of rules governing the internet in China, in sectors from online video to advertising to publishing. "China is imposing stricter control over advertising, unlike the rest of the world where ad-blocking is permissible," Edward Chatterton, a partner in the DLA Piper China practice, wrote in an email. "The measure is somewhat ironic as some of the largest ad-blocking companies originate from China."

UC Browser is the most popular third-party mobile browser in China -- a country with 710 million internet users, 656 million of whom use smartphones to go online.

Of people in China using such browsers, 56.2% used UC Browser in 2015, well ahead of the No. 2 player, Tencent's QQ browser, with 36.1%, according to a report from research firm iiMedia.

China's Qihoo 360, with a share of 15.1%, also offers a web browser with default ad-blocking. The company didn't respond to an email seeking comment on its plans.

Another browser, Opera, provides an ad-blocking feature in both its desktop and mobile browsers, which users can turn on manually. The Norwegian-developed browser isn't a major player in China, though a Chinese consortium agreed to buy it last month. A spokeswoman for Opera said that at this stage, it doesn't have a plan to react to the ad-blocking ban.

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