AdBlock has an FAQ page that discusses "acceptable ads" agreements. It discusses agreements, why there are so few ads on the "non-intrusive ads" list, how it verifies that a company meets the requirements, and even payment for being added to the list.
"Whitelisting is free for all small websites and blogs," ABP says on the page. "However, managing this list requires significant effort on our side and this task cannot be completely taken over by volunteers as it happens with common filter lists. That's why we are being paid by some larger properties that serve nonintrusive advertisements that want to participate in the Acceptable Ads initiative."
So, if reports are accurate, Google is one of those "larger properties".
Much of the conversation related to this finding is that Google could have an advantage over some companies with smaller budgets in getting ads through, thanks to its seemingly limitless checkbook. RyanZAG on Hacker News writes:
In essence, this has set up two tiers of advertising: those we have paid for white list privileges, and those who haven't. This is heavily in Google's interests as they are the only advertiser powerful enough to get by with only text adverts - nobody else has a platform like Google search where text only adverts are enough to overcome costs and provide viability.
By using Adblock Plus as a weapon against non-Google adverts, Google is removing the ability for other players to compete on level footing. It's very similar to the idea of paying AT&T for prioritization for Google traffic, and it destroys a lot of the foundations that the web is built on. It definitely crosses into 'evil' territory for me, in the same way as paying AT&T to slow down access to Bing would be.
In response, md224 makes another interesting point:
It's interesting that people are upset about Google being able to pay to get their content around certain barriers, when this is essentially what Google AdWords is: a system for advertisers to pay to get their content displayed in prominent locations rather than relying on position in organic search. And yet nobody really takes it seriously as a Real Problem.
Update: An AdBlock Plus spokesperson gave us the following points in an email:
1. “Acceptable Ads” is only about unobtrusive advertising (usually small text links, which are preferred by users). Banners, video ads, pop ups etc. will NEVER be allowed. See http://www.acceptableads.org
2. There is no way to “buy” a whitelisting. If ads are not according to standards, they can never be whitelisted. The community has the final decision power to check ads if they comply with the rules.
3. This isn’t really news. Adblock Plus initiated and transparently communicated “Acceptable Ads” over 1 ½ half years ago already, and many news outlets covered it back then (e.g. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/02/business/media/adblock-plus-allowing-some-online-advertisements.html).
4. About 80% of our users like “Acceptable Ads” as a fair balance between their interests and the interests of web site owners and publishers (see http://adblockplus.org/blog/adblock-plus-user-survey-results-part-3)
5. For the others: Every Adblock Plus user ALWAYS has the choice, you can switch off “Acceptable Ads” easily with one click in the “Options” menu!!! No need to switch to another ad blocker.