Privacy has been a major tentpole for Google products this year. Google made it clear at I/O 2019 in May and then at its Made by Google press conference in October that user privacy is something it cares about deeply. Android 10, for example, brings over several features that should make it harder for others to collect user data, Google included, but that’s only useful if your phone will get Android 10 at any point down the road.
Then Google spent plenty of time during its hardware event last month emphasizing its focus on privacy when talking about new products, Google Assistant included, although some challenged Google’s claims, saying they were just marketing tactics. Even so, Google seems more interested in improving user data protections in its products, and the company just announced it’s about to make an important change to the way its ad business works.
As much as Google may want to compete against Apple when it comes to privacy features, the fact remains that Google has to gather lots of user data to make money. That’s because advertising is still the leading moneymaker for the company, and all Google products are essentially gateways to search and ads.
In a post on Google’s Ad Manager blog, Google’s Chetna Bindra explained that, starting February 2020, Google will no longer include contextual content categories in the bid requests it sends to ad buyers:
Content categories are descriptions of the type of content on a specific page, website, or app. For example, these categories may indicate whether the content is about news or weather, and are intended to provide contextual information to advertisers about the site or app where the impression may appear. They help advertisers avoid showing ads on certain types of content that aren’t suitable for their brands, or as a way for advertisers to identify types of content where they do want to serve ads.
The move is to prevent certain advertisers from being able to associate user profiles with sensitive categories. It’s unclear whether certain advertisers were able to make such connections in the past, or whether they can do so now.
Google says it’s making the change following its “engagement with data protection authorities” and that it’ll continue to work with authorities that “investigate data protection practices in the context of Authorized Buyers.” Google’s senior product manager of user trust and privacy also said the company will update its EU User Consent Policy audit program for publishers and advertisers and the Authorized Buyers program.
The executive also explained that Google’s Real-Time Bidding (RTB) platform, where publishers sell ads, already has “strong measures” to protect privacy. Publishers are required to obtain consent from users to show them personalized content. Google, meanwhile, uses data minimization practices that should prevent user identification, “including truncating device IP addresses and using only resettable user IDs.”