Facing mounting pressure from privacy regulators and competitors, Google today announced that the company is backing away from selling ads based on individual users’ browsing data. Instead, it will shift toward ad tech that tracks consumers in large, anonymized groups. It’s a tradeoff that comes with its own new privacy challenges, privacy experts say.
"People shouldn’t have to accept being tracked across the web in order to get the benefits of relevant advertising," David Temkin, director of product management for Google's Ads Privacy and Trust team, said in a blog post. "And advertisers don't need to track individual consumers across the web to get the performance benefits of digital advertising."
The move comes hand-in-hand with Google’s decision to slowly back away from supporting third-party cookies in Chrome, Temkin added.
“Once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products,” Temkin said.
To be clear, Google isn’t doing anything that would harm the $146.92 billion in ad revenue collected by the Silicon Valley giant last year, and the company told the Wall Street Journal that the changes only cover websites, not ad tools and unique identifiers for mobile apps.
For website tracking, the company is shifting its focus to more sophisticated ad tech that’s less about targeting individual users, and more about using aggregated, “anonymized” data that tracks users in demographically-similar groups.
Google’s Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), for example, allows ads to be targeted at large “flocks” of internet users based on their shared interests. But groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have criticized such proposals as well, stating they’re the electronic equivalent of a consumer credit score “tattoo on your digital forehead.”
“FLoC is the opposite of privacy-preserving technology,” the group said. “Today, trackers follow you around the web, skulking in the digital shadows in order to guess at what kind of person you might be. In Google’s future, they will sit back, relax, and let your browser do the work for them.”
In the UK, regulators recently launched an antitrust inquiry into whether Google was using the improvements to further cement its dominance of the online advertising space.
Others have taken issue with companies that overly rely on “anonymization.” In large part because numerous studies have shown that “anonymized” data isn’t really anonymous, given it only takes a modicum of additional data to actively identify users. The more datasets that exist in the wild (via breaches or hacks), the easier it is to identify anonymized individuals.
In the post, Temkin made it clear that a lot of what’s motivating Google is the growing pressure from regulators on the privacy front, including growing calls for the United States to finally adopt some type of meaningful privacy law for the internet era. In the absence of federal leadership, states like California and Virginia are pushing their own consumer privacy protections.
“We don’t believe these solutions will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren’t a sustainable long term investment,” Temkin said.
Government regulators aren’t the only ones pushing Google to shore up its privacy practices. Apple and Mozilla have generally taken the lead on the shift away from traditional cookies, and in many ways Google is competing from behind. While Google ponders ditching cookies, Mozilla’s Firefox blocked third-party tracking cookies by default in late 2019.
Cookies had become archaic anyway. Verizon, for example, uses unique identifier headers to track individual users using data embedded in traffic packets sent to your internet service provider. Other ISPs use deep packet inspection technology on their networks allowing them to track your individual browsing behavior, without cookies, down to the millisecond.
Consumer groups were quick to applaud Google’s move, with reservations.
“We appreciate that Google has made a public commitment to end tracking users across all of the internet,” Greg Guice, Director of Government Affairs at consumer group Public Knowledge told Motherboard. “However, there is certainly much more that needs to be done, like enacting a strong federal privacy law and creating competition among dominant digital platforms. But those are steps only Congress can perform."
But whether Congress can shake off the lobbying and campaign contributions of multiple industries (advertising, telecom, “big tech,” app makers, banks) opposing such regulations remains a looming question. Especially given that the U.S. government’s eagerness to buy consumer location data to skirt the need for warrants is part of the broader problem.