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Explained | Google Privacy, Advertising and Their Claims of Not Tracking You Online

Explained | Google Privacy, Advertising and Their Claims of Not Tracking You Online

A Google privacy update saw it finally give up entirely on third party cookie tracking of users; will this really make your internet private, and also protect advertisers?

Google is finally giving up on third party cookie tracking. So far known as an effective way for millions of websites and advertising services to install tiny pieces of script in your browser to learn about you and serve contextual advertisements, such surveillance nature of user tracking has faced major flak from across the world – from lawmakers, regulators, users and privacy advocates alike. Now, in a blog post from earlier today, Google has vouched that the end for third party cookie tracking in its network is here, therefore claiming that the tech giant will no longer track users across the internet all the time.

What, though, does it really mean for users? Anyone on the internet today have either gotten too used to being tracked and served with targeted advertisements, or have taken tedious measures to reduce the amount of impact that independent and corporate advertisers can have in terms of putting a virtual sketch of a person together. If Google does do away with this, would it also qualify as a major blow for advertisers in terms of potential revenue, and firmly put Google in a monopolistic seat – this time even with user privacy techniques?

What is Google’s privacy pitch

The blog post by David Temkin, product management director for Google Ads, Privacy and Trust underlines one positive thing – users, after all, have taken cognisance of the ill effects that individual tracking has had on the privacy of everyone. “It (targeted advertisement) has created a proliferation of individual user data across thousands of companies, typically gathered through third-party cookies. This has led to an erosion of trust: In fact, 72 percent of people feel that almost all of what they do online is being tracked by advertisers, technology firms or other companies, and 81 percent say that the potential risks they face because of data collection outweigh the benefits,” Temkin says.

The trust factor has been a long time coming. It has been clarified, time and again, with cases such as antitrust investigations against Google and fellow big tech baddie Facebook with regards to their online advertisement duopoly – in USA, UK and other parts of Europe. While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s “Senator, we sell ads” catchline may have turned into an impromptu meme due to the circumstances of the congressional hearing where it was asked, it highlighted a major problem that Google has tried to address here.

The company further says, on this note, that its Privacy Sandbox option that claims to anonymise, crowd and randomise collected data is the answer to the privacy concerns, and not adopt an alternate user identifier. “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,” says Temkin. On the face of it, this is a pretty tall claim – for Google, for technology, for users and for advertising.

Is it right for users?

In essence, what Google is saying is not that it will not take any data from you, at all. Instead, it says, “We don’t believe these (alternate user tracking) 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. Instead, our web products will be powered by privacy-preserving APIs which prevent individual tracking while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers.”

A flock name would essentially be a behavioural credit score: a tattoo on your digital forehead that gives a succinct summary of who you are, what you like, where you go, what you buy, and with whom you associate.

In other words, Google will still get access to a lot of data, but it is becoming even more possessive about it, and wants everyone to trust it as the guardian angel of privacy around the world. Google’s big pitch here is a piece of technology called federated learning of cohorts (FLoC) – something that will collate data based on user interests, but them together in groups based on these interests, and present to advertisers looking for amplified revenues via better tracking.

On the overall sense, it doesn’t sound like a deceitful update, at least from the user perspective. However, there are obvious flaws. In a scathing teardown of Google’s privacy promises made almost two years ago, privacy and security watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation highlights how FLoC is far from the ideal cookie tracking alternative that Google is pitching it to be. Bennett Cyphers of EFF’s Tech Projects team wrote, “A flock name would essentially be a behavioural credit score: a tattoo on your digital forehead that gives a succinct summary of who you are, what you like, where you go, what you buy, and with whom you associate. The flock names will likely be inscrutable to users, but could reveal incredibly sensitive information to third parties. Trackers will be able to use that information however they want, including to augment their own behind-the-scenes profiles of users.”

Cyphers further broke down Google’s claim of processing sensitive data out of its interest cohorts that it reckons is better than today’s available tracking tech. In the breakdown, Google itself clearly acknowledges that users may not find the same data sensitive, and its FLoC and Privacy Sandbox implementation is far from a blanket balm over the privacy pain of today. “Additionally, many sites currently choose to respect their users’ privacy by refraining from working with third-party trackers. FLoC would rob these websites of such a choice,” the EFF report added.

What about advertisers?

If you run a small business, then you too are likely benefitting from targeted ads being serviced to users across the world. However, numerous agencies have already voiced concerns around what Google’s move may mean for advertisers. French online ad-tech organisation Criteo is among those who have vocally criticised Google’s move. In a statement issued basis Google’s update, a Criteo spokesperson said, “Google’s announcement today that they will not create their own PII (private information identifier)-based identifier does not in any way change or impact Criteo’s plan and roadmap of implementing email ID-based user tracking called Unified ID 2.0.”

Companies with access to large tracking networks will be able to draw their own conclusions about the ways that users from a certain flock tend to behave.

There has already been vocal criticism of Google’s privacy implementation in the independent advertisement arena. The EFF states, “Flock names will be more meaningful to those who are already capable of observing activity around the web. Companies with access to large tracking networks will be able to draw their own conclusions about the ways that users from a certain flock tend to behave. Discriminatory advertisers will be able to identify and filter out flocks which represent vulnerable populations. Predatory lenders will learn which flocks are most prone to financial hardship.”

However, Google defends that it is not all downhill for small scale advertisers. In an interaction with Marketing Interactive, a Google spokesperson claimed that advertisers can still achieve plenty of personalisation and targeting through FLoC, which will not entirely do away with first-party customer interaction despite Google’s privacy APIs. “Advertisers are going to get privacy and performance so there’s not going to be any trade off. Advertisers feel confident that we are doing the right thing by the user from a privacy point of view, but also that advertisers will still be able to connect in the right moments and publishers will still be able to get fair compensation for their content.”

As with every new piece of technology, whether Google’s big push for privacy would work for better or worse remains to be seen. The massive advertisement economy will, until then, remain at stake in terms of how new user measurement metrics will be implemented. The question of individual privacy, on this note, is a bigger discussion that can only mature in the years to come.