back to article Ad blockers altering website code is not a copyright violation, German court rules

Ad-filtering biz Eyeo on Tuesday celebrated the defeat of a copyright claim that threatened to break the web, though that risk hasn't entirely been put to rest in the US. Eyeo was sued last year by German publisher Axel Springer for allegedly violating its copyrights by altering its websites with its browser extension AdBlock …

  1. sabroni Silver badge
    Unhappy

    so when I click on a google link

    I'm not telling the browser to visit the site, I'm asking Google to host the site in a wrapper so it can hide the site I want to see behind ads?

    I'll stick with DuckDuckGo ta.

    1. The Dogs Meevonks

      Re: so when I click on a google link

      I'll stick with duckduckgo privacy essentials on firefox, along with ublock origin, privacy badger, ghostery, disconnect, https everywhere, video bocker, noscript and of course containers to sandbox googles sites so they can only see themselves.

      I also remove all search engines except duckduckgo and use a VPN 100% of the time... and not forgetting the hosts file and some sites blocked at the router level.

      I may not be able to block 100% of the tracking... but I do my best to block as much as I can.

  2. Detective Emil

    A victory for Best Carpet Value would be bad??

    Seems to me that it would outlaw those slide-overs and banners that “smart” TVs and dongles use to obscure whatever it is that you’re trying to see.

    1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Re: A victory for Best Carpet Value would be bad??

      This is walnut vs sledgehammer territory. It's reasonable to want to get into a walnut. But you don't want to pulverise it.

      Likewise here, the aim seems fair - and most consumers and businesses would love Google's ad bar to be banned - but a success under this legal theory would break the web.

    2. ThatOne Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: A victory for Best Carpet Value would be bad??

      > it would outlaw those slide-overs and banners that “smart” TVs and dongles use to obscure whatever it is that you’re trying to see

      You're kidding? Advertisement is a legit if not sacred thing, and $millions of lobbying power will make sure it stays not only legal but if possible mandatory.

      Double standards (and if you can afford it, triple)...

  3. pip25
    Trollface

    Great idea

    I'm going to sue the ad networks next, claiming they are trespassing on my computer when I surf the web. My ad blocker should make my intent perfectly clear to them, yet they still insist on getting around it. How dare they.

    1. Oh Matron!

      Re: Great idea

      I wonder if there's any mileage in charging them for the computing cycles used to display their garbage?

    2. Chris G Silver badge

      Re: Great idea

      That was the first thought I had while reading the article.

      Placing cookies and ads on my devices without my express permission is trespass.

      1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

        Re: Great idea

        You'll probably find that the annoying cookie banner you click through (or the site's T&Cs) have some kind of clause that says "You allow us to treat you like our product to be milked"

        There are a few websites out there, where if you click their "decline cookies" pop-up option they refuse to let you in.

        1. Steve K Silver badge

          Re: Great idea

          Yes - even though this should not be permitted under GDPR

          And don't get me started on "Legitimate Interest" driving a coach and horses through it all anyway!

          1. imanidiot Silver badge

            Re: Great idea

            The legitimate interest one is annoying. GDPR has sharply defined what "legitimate interest" actually is and what companies are allowed to do with data gathered for those purposes. The problem is of course that companies cannot be trusted to do ONLY exactly that with the data once it's been gathered and a user has no way to prove certain data was misused. Likewise it would be very hard even for a government authority to do a surprise inspection of a company and it's website code and prove definitively that it was breaking the rules. I get why they thought putting in the exception for legitimate interest into the rules was a good idea but it did sort of unbolt the barn doors and it didn't take long for the horses to notice.

          2. A Non e-mouse Silver badge
            Unhappy

            Re: Great idea

            I logged onto Freecycle the other day (Haven't been on it for a while) Reached for the Decline Cookie button and found that many of the harvesting cookies you can't opt-out of.

            Grrr....

        2. katrinab Silver badge
          Megaphone

          Re: Great idea

          You'll probably find that they deposit cookies on your device before you are given the opportunity to agree or decline the T&C.

        3. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

          Re: Decline cookies -> refused access

          I appreciate the honesty. I do not have any right to read every web page on the net. They are clear about the cost of access so I can make an informed decision. Far better than granting access while activating stealth tracking for dissenters.

          1. Cederic Silver badge

            Re: Decline cookies -> refused access

            GDPR requires that service providers do not withhold service if someone rejects cookies.

            "Allow users to access your service even if they refuse to allow the use of certain cookies"

            -- https://gdpr.eu/cookies/

            1. LybsterRoy Bronze badge

              Re: Decline cookies -> refused access

              I wonder, would it be legal to have a pay barrier with one payment option being allow cookies?

        4. Richard Jones 1
          FAIL

          Re: Great idea

          Ah, they are the websites I do not want to enter, perhaps they have some extra tacky crap for sale?

        5. tonique
          Unhappy

          Re: Great idea

          "There are a few websites out there, where if you click their 'decline cookies' pop-up option they refuse to let you in."

          I found to my dismay today that if I don't click on "accept all cookies" on the Statistics Centre of Finland site, it won't show me statistics.

      2. veti Silver badge

        Re: Great idea

        You clicked on the link or otherwise navigated to the page. That action constitutes an explicit request to have the content of said page transmitted to you. What are you complaining about exactly?

        1. Chris G Silver badge

          Re: Great idea

          @veti

          So given your comment, I assume that when you open a shop door in order to look at the products they may have for sale, you are happy with the shop taking your address, phone number, the device/s details of anything you may be carrying, record everything you look at and for how long and store that information and/or sell it to others to use for profiling you to target with unwanted or uneeded ads?

          1. veti Silver badge

            Re: Great idea

            I'm perfectly fine with them asking for whatever they feel is appropriate. Their shop, their rules. Whether I choose to answer their questions is another matter. I of course reserve the right to walk out again.

            But if I walk into their shop, I don't complain about the goods or ads on display there. (Well, OK, I might. But not on the grounds that I don't like them or aren't interested in them so they're wasting my time. That would not be reasonable.)

          2. LybsterRoy Bronze badge

            Re: Great idea

            I'm old enough to remember shops with signs saying it was free to enter. I don't remember any saying you would be charged but in my defense I was young, didn't have much money and simply would have ignored any that existed.

          3. captain veg Silver badge

            Re: Great idea

            Wrong analogy. Shops are private property. Web sites are deliberately placed in to public space. If they want to be private, log in options are available.

            It's more like a market stall insisting that I can't even look at its wares without them surreptitiously rifling through my wallet, and then slipping a tracking bug in my pocket.

            -A.

        2. JetSetJim

          Re: Great idea

          meh - in my book the action consists of requesting a chunk of ascii/binary data in a blob of some description that I can manipulate on my own computer in any way I see fit, including, and not limited to, removing ads, not running Javascript, and only selectively allowing parts of that blob to be written to my storage such that it either leaves footprints or adds to information about the use of that device, and only selectively allowing any information transfer from my device to any other device.

          To paraphrase the shop analogy in another post - if I walk into a shop, I'm ok with them noticing I'm there. I'm not ok with them rummaging in my pockets for other till receipts to see where else I've been and what I've bought, or for them to shove other bits of paper in my pockets that they staple to the material to make it hard to throw away.

          1. martyn.hare
            Trollface

            I concur

            I would even go as far as to say “my copy, my rules” and if companies do not like me modifying their code, they should not have given it to me in the first place!

            echo “Do whatever you like…” > LICENSE

            Problem solved!

        3. captain veg Silver badge

          Re: Great idea

          My browser explicitly requests a stream of HTML and linked content. It is free to interpret it any way that it, or more importantly I, want.

          -A.

      3. hoola Silver badge

        Re: Great idea

        Ah but there you are misguided....

        They are placing these cookies to enhance your browsing experience.

        Things like ensuring that you have adverts for something you searched on and have already bought or have no intention of buying.

        Aggregating 100 year cookies with Facebook

        Providing you a tailored browsing experience.

        And similar marketing speak shite.

  4. jake Silver badge

    Ads?

    What are these things you call ads?

    1. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge

      Re: Ads?

      Indeed. I don't see why anyone would want "acceptable" ads at all. I use uBlock0 on Firefox (with strict tracking protection turned on), followed by DNS-based ad-blocking on my own router (with all connections to port 53 rerouted), followed by NextDNS via TLS as a blocking backstop. The only real problem this seems to give me is that I have to go through quite a few hoops to click on the "unsubscribe" links in emails (because they're almost always blocked as "tracking" by one of these layers).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Ads?

        You know that "unsubscribing" just means the e-mail is active and can be sold to may other spammers, right?

        1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

          Re: Ads?

          Actually, at least with the sites I use, it normally doesn't.

          I, like most people here I hope, use a different address for any site I provide an email address. They mostly allow me to turn off marketing emails but some do still send me stuff. Clicking on "unsubscribe" then normally works and I don't get any more - at least the sites I use are not selling, or even leaking, those addresses.

          I guess it probably helps that most of my interaction is with sites in GDPR jurisdictions, and most of the rest is with the US which has had reasonable anti-spam laws (such as requiring unsubscribe links) for some time.

          Clicking on links other than unsubscribe, though, certainly does go to feedback that the address is real and that you actually read the emails they send and will result in much increase in stuff.

          1. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge

            Re: Ads?

            Yeah, I'm not a complete idiot. I only click unsubscribe in emails from reputable sources – and in general I don't even click on the links in emails I want. Sod their tracking (and the risk of dodgy links) – I'll go via bookmarks/a DDG search. I also block automatic image loading in emails (which, quite rightly, is the default in Tutanota).

          2. JetSetJim

            Re: Ads?

            For most folks, you don't have to click on links in the email for them to know you've read it. Marketing platforms report "open rate" as well as "click rate" - at the very least they can just bury some user specific HTML in the email that all points to the same micro-pixel/image, so once that loads they know the user has opened the email.

            Yes, the more technically minded can possibly bury that, but most people don't/can't. And some people may just do the "add sender/domain to safe list" for a recognised sender so that the email displays correctly in some clients.

            1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

              Re: Ads?

              For the last few years before I retired I was creating technical marketing material (honestly, it was stuff the audience - all engineers and managers in very technical organisations - wanted, not consumer marketing!). I realise our audience was more technical than most, but many people nowadays have image loading disabled and/or mail systems that work hard to prevent those links working. My outbound marketing colleagues were always complaining that their "open rate" numbers were useless.

              All the marketing automation tools companies know that "open rate" is meaningless. Some of them are even honest enough to tell their customers that.

              1. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge

                Re: Ads?

                As I noted above, Tutatnota has image loading disabled by default (and most common pixel bugs will be caught by my DNS-based filtering anyway).

                Interestingly, I got an email from one company a while back that said "we noticed you haven't been opening our newsletter lately..." and they were going to take me off their list! In that case, I actually clicked the "don't unsubscribe me" link. Clearly someone thinks their open rate means something...

              2. jake Silver badge
                Pint

                Re: Ads?

                My email client isn't b0rken enough to anything other than display text, as the late Ray Tomlinson intended.

                RIP, Ray. And thank you.

            2. tiggity Silver badge

              Re: Ads?

              HTML mail - by default my email client is in text only mode. Works for me.No tracking pixel grief, no risk of dodgy js exploits etc.

              1. ThatOne Silver badge
                Unhappy

                Re: Ads?

                Mine too, but it gets more and more difficult, as most corporate or government entities don't bother filling the "Plain Text" part of their emails anymore. Increasingly the "plain text" part only says something along the lines of "You've chosen not to read our carefully crafted HTML, so screw you"...

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dont click

    If everybody stopped clicking on ads, it would make them a waste of money and they would cease to be a thing.

    In a perfect dream world :(

    1. Filippo Silver badge

      Re: Dont click

      Yup. On the desktop, AdBlock. On mobile browsing and ad-infested apps, I never, ever click on ads. In the less-than-once-a-year case where an ad happens to show me something I think I'm very likely to purchase, then I'll search for it later, when I have time to also check reviews and look at any competition.

      On the phone, while we're at it, the nanosecond I realize it's a marketing call, I hang up and blacklist the number. Unless it's my bank or utility provider or something, in which case I politely refuse and then make sure they are aware they do not have my consent to marketing calls.

      Feel free to put ads on billboards, but not on or through my own gear.

      If a product or offer is really good, I'll hear of it through word of mouth, or news articles, or when I actively search for something related.

      1. My other car WAS an IAV Stryker Silver badge

        Re: Blacklisting marketing calls

        My Vonage home VoiP line got so many that I maxed out the 50 blocked numbers. So I set it to full "do not disturb" which bounces straight to voicemail. Any service I don't want annoying calls from gets that number (anything financial especially) instead of my handbrain (the touchscreen pocket computer aka "mobile phone").

        I get an alert (email) only when someone leaves a voicemail, but most of the time it "can't be transcribed" because usually the robodial didn't hang up fast enough and the voicemail is a one-second silence. My only remaining peeve is having to delete those periodically.

      2. Claverhouse Silver badge

        Re: Dont click

        But also feel free to deface billboards.

        Or outlaw them in your municipality --- there are few now; but I understand when they were prevalent in Britain they were kinda hideous.

      3. Cederic Silver badge

        Re: Dont click

        If you're using Android the Samsung web browser is free to use and offers multiple adblock options.

        Doesn't help with apps, but it makes the web a far more pleasant experience. It's also just a very good browser.

    2. Psmo

      Re: Dont click

      Unfortunately, just not clicking ads won't work.

      Thanks to Google creating AdSense budgets that autospend, I would be months if not years before people notice their click-through rate is too low for the budget given.

      That is, if they even notice at all...

      Making it socially unacceptable for companies to work with them, and calling them and their clients out when they misbehave is, unfortunately, the only way to create reliable change.

    3. LybsterRoy Bronze badge

      Re: Dont click

      If that ever happens can we get rid of (you choose the method) of the "influencers" as well please.

    4. hoola Silver badge

      Re: Dont click

      Easier said than done when for 99.9% of the population the sequence is:

      Type something approaching the website or what you are looking for in the address bar.

      Pick the top result that is always an ad.

      Repeat until you find what you want or are sucked into using the search on the website you have ended up on.

      Amazon is the absolute worst for this.

      Search for something and most of the top results are ads are all pointing to Amazon taking you to a pages that tells you item xyz is not available a this price but here are some suggestions,.

      Both the adverts or completely spurious link have done their job and sucked the unsuspecting user in. From not on most will just follow the links for the recommendations or use the search for that site.

      Then you have the review sites where everything links back to Amazon. Money buys more money and influence.

  6. Robert Jenkins
    WTF?

    It's not ads vs. no ads - it's who controls your device / PC screen

    So: They are trying to make illegal something the device USER just has an *option* or ability to expand and cover their page.

    If they win against google, what's their logical next step and progression from that - ban phone alert banners & system popups that "deface" their pages?

    Or ban tab selection that allow you to switch between their page and a competitors?

    What next? Remove the option to exit the browser or go to any other page, once theirs is being displayed??

    It's the browser/device users choice to have something else displayed, not any web site owners right to _force_ a user to see a specific thing and nothing else.

    The whole concept needs stamping out before such things get any toehold.

    1. ThatOne Silver badge

      Re: It's not ads vs. no ads - it's who controls your device / PC screen

      > What next? Remove the option to exit the browser or go to any other page, once theirs is being displayed??

      Being tied on a chair, wearing eye spreaders, forced to watch ads 24/7.

      Also giving them direct access to your bank account so they can siphon off your money, instead of having to wait for you to make up your mind and actually buy something.

  7. emfiliane

    Why are tech wonks like Eric Goldman so hyperbolic?

    These people get trotted out every time to say that if any technology company even *faces* a lawsuit about fair business practices, then the sky is falling and the internet as we know it is doomed. Just from the description alone, that Google inserts an advertisement frame into the results, it sounds like a fair cop to at least proceed on the merits and see what they're really doing and if they are indeed breaking any fair business practices, given Google's near-monopoly on the market.

    It's not the 90's anymore, technology disruptors are not the scrappy underdog fighting The Man, they are The Man.

  8. Binraider Silver badge

    Besides adblockers, there are somewhat lesser used technologies affected by this such as filtering web proxies, or accessibility tools.

    Proxomitron was an incredibly useful tool 15-20 years ago for sifting out rubbish before it got to (or even left) your PC. Sadly the move away from easily comprehensible webpage authoring means maintaining tools like that became incredibly difficult.

  9. Twanky Silver badge
    Mushroom

    HTML copyright

    The publisher... It claimed that the HTML used to render web pages is protected and thus cannot be altered without the approval of the copyright holder.

    So they assert copyright to the HTML as delivered? That surely means they are responsible/liable for everything it does? From this we should assume that near realtime ad bidding cannot be used as they have not created/reviewed or hosted the code that they bundle into their pages.

    If they successfully claim copyright then hit them for *all* undesired effects of their code on your computer.

    1. Lon24 Silver badge

      Re: HTML copyright

      Ahem,

      If I buy a book - the contents are copyrighted restricting my re-use of the content. This surely doesn't extend to me making notes in the margin, underlining and highlighting text, or my grandchild obliterating or ripping out whole chunks. Or using a magnifying glass.

      Which are 'modifications'. But IANAL. Should I perhaps not buy any more Justin Case books from the library which may have been annotated by some third party?

      1. Unbelievable!
        FAIL

        Re: HTML copyright

        *ahem*

        @ https://forums.theregister.com/user/96254/

        The copyright holder is not entitled infringe upon your statutory rights.

        You may enter an agreement, but that agreement relates to copyrighted works.

        It does NOT extend to eventual use. only republication and credit.

        *ahem

    2. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: HTML copyright

      HTML was specifically designed to allow the user to modify it. For accessibility purposes it has always been permissible to modify all aspects of it at the users pleasure.

  10. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge
    Pirate

    The limits of copyright

    IMHO, as soon as the page is served that is it.

    If the likes of Axel S are allowed to maintain [cough][cough] ownership right to the destination then the ISP's and OS owners who love to inject their own ads into the stream will get stuffed.

    My take is that Axel S and ilk can go take a hike and let us block everything we want in order to make the internet at least half usable.

    If we can't block Ads then the Internet as we know it is DOA.

    Just my £0.02p worth.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: take a hike and let us block everything we want

      I very much agree. But wasn't the case rather against *google*, who were (arguably) misrepresenting the actual web page that a user had (via their browser) wanted to see?

  11. localzuk

    Bizarre argument

    If I buy a magazine and take it home, then use scissors and patches of paper with a glue stick to remove the ads, I'm not breaching their copyright. Pritt Stick (other makes are available) aren't breaching it either.

    If I pay someone else to cut and paste those ads for me, they aren't breaching it either!

    Its a bizarre argument that I can't see has any grounds at all.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Bizarre argument

      But what if someone else alters the contents before they get to you or otherwise does so without either party's permission? Wouldn't that be considering tampering with the contents?

      1. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

        Re: Bizarre argument

        Yes it would. But it's not applicable here, as you've given permission for the alterations by installing the adblocker.

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: Bizarre argument

          Not those. The ones the site owner is complaining about, about Google plastering ads for rival firms over his original content. Neither the site owner nor the client agreed to that.

          So it's like someone pasting over one poster with a rival firm's poster. It's not as bad as say Amazon advertising its own (cheaper) product on the same page as someone else's version of said product on the same page, but it's not kosher, either.

          1. localzuk

            Re: Bizarre argument

            But if someone installs an extension, explicitly agreeing to its terms, then they have agreed to the alternate adverts?

  12. Richard Jones 1
    WTF?

    Block Axel

    Perhaps the answer is to block those sites that insist on such behaviour, i.e. those from German publisher Axel Springer?

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Block Axel

      And if the bad behavior comes from a government website or someplace else where substitution is not possible?

      1. ThatOne Silver badge

        Re: Block Axel

        Indeed. Nowadays we depend heavily on websites, and while some are indeed unnecessary and can be avoided, others are mandatory and/or unavoidable.

  13. heyrick Silver badge

    by making client-side code alteration unlawful

    That would be complete bullshit. It's not just blocking adverts. It's reader mode. It's Chrome that habitually resizes everything to "look good" (for varying interpretations of good) on mobile devices. It's the ability to replace styling with your own, for instance higher contrast or easier to read fonts. It's screen readers for translating it to Braille or reading it aloud.

    HTML itself is predicated on the idea that you send marked up content and the "browser" attempts to render that within the limitations of the system, the video output capabilities (think Lynx), and the user's choices. Certainly a lot of things would break if the user disables JavaScript. I know, it's my default setting.

    Speaking of which, if client side alteration was to be determined to be unlawful, that would render all of the JavaScript that screws with stuff, client side, in order to place the adverts equally unlawful. Kind of a massive own goal there, eh?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: by making client-side code alteration unlawful

      I'm not sure how you would make the legal distinction, but there seems to me a difference between client-side alteration decided on by the user, and google's man-in-the-middle page furtling beforehand.

      1. Cederic Silver badge

        Re: by making client-side code alteration unlawful

        Indeed, and movie streaming services that censor 'things wot censorious people hate' have lost in court for breach of copyright, even though they're implementing cuts and changes at the behest of the (sadly ignorant) viewer.

    2. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: by making client-side code alteration unlawful

      Not if in encourages more server-side shenanigans (like server-side tracking) that are harder to block without consequences...

  14. mark l 2 Silver badge

    Assuming 'Best Carpets Value' are bestcarpetvalue.com. Then a quick internet search shows they have a yearly revenue of $5m, so I doubt they will have the money to keep paying lawyers to get this through courts. We have seen how these cases get appealed if big tech doesn't get the result they like and Google had deep enough pockets to drag this out until Best carpet value runs out of money for lawyers.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Brought this on themselves

    If advertisers hadn't abused the trust we had in letting ads be on web pages in the first place (by making them far too frequent; autoplay videos with sound; borderline NSFW; annoying; excessively tracking, etc etc) they wouldn't be in this situation now. I remember the early days of adverts, it was a small leaderboard banner without any videos or sound, maybe a skyscraper somewhere on the page, without any cookies or phoning home unless you clicked it. The other day when an ad came through and suddenly started slowing down the page, I inspected it - a 250x250 ad square had loaded the full jQuery UI library. To render an ad! Insanity.

    1. ThatOne Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Brought this on themselves

      > a 250x250 ad square had loaded the full jQuery UI library

      That's why cowboy programmers want browsers to have full access to the system and be able to tap into the totality of its resources. To make sloppy programming easier.

  16. Unbelievable!
    Unhappy

    jeepers. ANY business can just control your computer usage legally now.

    simply buy an advert.

    Fuck this shit.

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