Google develops plenty of software, but the company makes most of its money from ads that you see online in Google’s own apps and services, in Google Search, and on other sites. Google collects personal data to build up user profiles that its targets with personalized ads. Those ads are more likely to convince people to buy something, and advertisers pay Google more money for such ads.
Despite all that, Google has been increasing privacy protections in its products in recent years. Google doesn’t really have a choice, given the massive pressure from Apple, which refocused on privacy and security core years ago. And Google seems ready to do something that will put user privacy ahead of its bottom line. The company just promised that it’s not going to build user-tracking tools to replace the internet cookies that it’s about to kill.
Cookies are tiny pieces of information that websites use to implement certain functionalities and track users. Companies like Google, Facebook, and others can track users across websites with the help of cookies — and, actually, Mozilla just released a Firefox update that stops that behavior.
Firefox also blocks third-party cookies, and Apple’s Safari does the same thing. Google’s Chrome will follow suit. And Google addressed cookies in a blog post this week.
Google explains that the user-tracking ad business generated an “erosion of trust” — “72% of people feel that almost all of what they do online is being tracked by advertisers, technology firms, or other companies, and 81% say that the potential risks they face because of data collection outweigh the benefits, according to a study by Pew Research Center.”
Initially, Google makes it sound like it isn’t to blame for the problem, as it stresses the fact that the internet we have today would not be possible without ads. But Google quickly makes it clear that advertising needs to change. “If digital advertising doesn’t evolve to address the growing concerns people have about their privacy and how their identity is being used, we risk the future of the free and open web,” Google said.
Google then reminds us that Chrome will ditch cookies, dropping the bombshell that it won’t look to develop other trackers to replace them, either.
“We continue to get questions about whether Google will join others in the ad tech industry who plan to replace third-party cookies with alternative user-level identifiers,” Google wrote. “Today, we’re making explicit that 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.”
The company said that its “web products will be powered by privacy-preserving APIs which prevent individual tracking while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers.”
Google goes on to explain that people shouldn’t accept being tracked online for the benefits of relevant advertising and that advertisers do not need to track individual consumers to get “the performance benefits of digital advertising.” That’s certainly a surprising conclusion coming from Google.
Google will use various technologies, including “aggregation, anonymization, on-device processing, and other privacy-preserving technologies” to replace individual identifiers.
Chrome will make FLoC (or Federated Learning of Cohorts) available for public testing this month, and will use FLoC-based cohorts with advertisers in the second quarter of the year. FLoC is a technology that will hide individuals within large crowds of people with common interests.
Chrome 89 will come with the Privacy Sandbox feature that Google mentions in the blog, which should enable FLoC. Android Police has already discovered the feature in the beta version of Chrome 89 for Android.