Chrome’s “Manifest V3” plan to limit ad-blocking extensions has been delayed

For several years now, Google has wanted to eliminate the current extension system in Chrome in favor of a more limited one, which has resulted in more restrictions on filtering extensions that block ads and/or serve to preserve user privacy. The new extension system, technically called “Manifest V3” hit the stable channel in January 2021, but Chrome still supports the older and more powerful system, Manifest V2. The first steps toward wrapping up Manifest V2 were supposed to start in January 2023, but as 9to5Google first spotted, Google now says it’s delayed the mandatory switch to Manifest V3 and won’t even have a new V2 closing timeline ready until March.

The old timeline started in January 2023, when beta versions of Chrome started running Manifest V2 crash “experiments”. This will move to stable release in June, with the Chrome Web Store blocking Extensions Manifest V2 in January 2024. The new timeline is that there is no timeline, and each step is now listed as “Delayed” or “Under Review”.

In a post about the delay, Chrome extensions developer attorney Simeon Vincent said, “We’ve heard your feedback about common challenges posed by the migration process, specifically the inability of the service worker to use DOM capabilities and the current stringent service worker lifetime limitations. We’re mitigating the first with Offscreen Documents API (added in Chrome 109) and we’re actively pursuing a solution for the latter.” After adding that every step in the timeline is pending, Vincent said, “Expect to hear more about the updated removal plan and timeline by March 2023.”

Google’s statement only deals with the second controversial change to Manifest V3: turning off the extension’s ability to run a hidden background page due to background processing. Google wants all background processing to take place in the service workers, but this is a complex environment compared to normal web development and comes with many limitations. Google’s delay is only about trying to fix some of these background limitations.

The new Manifest V3 schedule, which just says that everything is behind.
Zoom in / The new Manifest V3 schedule, which just says that everything is behind.

The Google

Google’s post doesn’t mention filtering add-ons, so the world’s largest ad company doesn’t seem to have changed its stance on ad blockers. The big problem with these extensions is that they eliminate the WebRequest API, which allows ad blockers and other filter tools to quickly modify Chrome’s network requests. Usually, this is used to create huge lists of websites (ad servers) that extensions want to block access to. Google has sort of thrown these extras away by creating a new API that allows a limited list of URL blocks, but that’s only a static list of 30,000 URLs, whereas a typical uBlock Origin install comes with 300,000 dynamic filter rules. Some ad blockers will try to play within these rules with the release of Manifest V3, but Google will undermine their effectiveness and don’t want to implement any of the commonsense solutions that would allow them to continue operating at the current level.

“Deceptive and dangerous”

Google started this mess in 2018 with a blog post outlining a plan for “trustworthy Chrome extensions, by default”. As part of the Manifest V3 rollout, Google’s official story is that it wanted to cut down on the “too broad access” given to extensions and that a limited extension system would “enable more performing extensions.” A fun side effect of all of that is limited ad blocking, which should conveniently help Google’s bottom line. It will be the old schedule finally I implemented the full transition to Manifest V3 six years after this initial blog post, but now it looks like it’s going to take even longer.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation didn’t buy into Google’s sales pitch and called Manifest V3 “disingenuous and dangerous” about a year ago. The EFF said Manifest V3 would “restrict the capabilities of web extensions — particularly those designed to monitor, modify, and compute along with the conversation your browser is having with the websites you visit.” The privacy group said it’s “doubtful Mv3 will do much for security” either, since it only limits website content filtering, not collection, so malicious extensions can still dump all your data. The EFF also says that performance isn’t a valid excuse either, citing a study showing that downloading and serving ads degrades browser performance. If Google is concerned about security, it can better monitor the extension store.

The Chrome team seems committed to turning heel lately. The group also refused to block tracking cookies so it could first build up a tracking and ad system in Chrome (this has also been repeatedly delayed). If people are tired of Chrome’s aggressive changes supporting Google’s business model, there are alternatives. Some Chromium-based forks like Brave and Vivaldi have pledged to keep Manifest V2 running when Google shuts it down. Of course, there’s also always Firefox, which says it’ll move to Manifest V3 along with Google but will re-add the WebRequest API that add-on filtering relies on.

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