Google just gave itself a win-win with new advertising privacy controls that will affect developers — and, eventually, users and advertisers.
The features, announced at Google’s annual I/O developer conference, will give users more easy-to-access information and power over which cookies websites have installed on their browsers, crucially distinguishing between cookies that actually help you and those that glean data for advertisers. It’s also prohibiting another type of online tracking called fingerprinting.
The ability to better control who’s tracking you to sell you things sounds great for privacy transparency, but it’s also beneficial for Google’s bottom line. These changes could impact the amount of data third parties can collect on internet users and give Google an even greater edge over competitors. That’s potentially concerning for people like presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who are interested in examining whether Google has too much power already.
How do advertisers track you, anyway?
Cookies can be useful; they enable sites to preload your logins and passwords. But they also allow sites to track where else you go on the internet. That’s why you may see an ad for a product that you were just looking at on a different website — and feel like the internet is Big Brother. Fingerprinting has the same effect, but you don’t even know you’re giving your information away.
Change comes to Chrome
When a user deletes their cookies, it’s difficult to distinguish what was a useful cookie (that helps content load and log-in information autofill) from a web-tracking one. By differentiating between the two, Google says it will give users better control over which cookies they want to allow. Going forward, developers will have to specify which kind of cookie it wants to install with a new Google tool. Google already enables users to delete cookies, it just hasn’t previously been able to categorize them as those that remain on site or those that follow you around.
“In the coming months, Chrome will require developers to use this mechanism to access their cookies across sites,” a Chrome blog post reads. “This change will enable users to clear all such cookies while leaving single domain cookies unaffected, preserving user logins and settings. It will also enable browsers to provide clear information about which sites are setting these cookies, so users can make informed choices about how their data is used.”
Chrome is also tackling the rise of fingerprinting, which it describes as “underground … harder-to-detect methods that subvert cookie controls.”
“Chrome plans to more aggressively restrict fingerprinting across the web,” it announced in the blog post. Google was not as forthcoming about how exactly it will do this, but it emphasized shoring up the Chrome browser to make it less vulnerable to this sort of monitoring.
When will users see the benefits?
When users will begin to notice these changes is unclear, but, at least in the case of cookies, Google is rolling out what developers need to make the changes.
However, these changes don’t apply to Google’s own advertising business. Google is able to track the web activity of Chrome users (if we give consent) through Chrome itself — no cookies needed.
Chrome has a suite of tools that aim to provide “transparency” about why you see a certain ad and gives you ways to restrict Google’s tracking. But those tools have not impacted Google’s dominance in the advertising space.
What Google’s getting out of this — and why lawmakers might care
Google is the leading seller of online advertising, capturing 38 percent of the market, according to research firm eMarketer. Big guns like Facebook, and, increasingly, Amazon, are on its tail. But there are also plenty of advertising companies in the business of matching your user data to the ads you’re most likely to click on — who will be hurt by Google’s changes. As much as the move is great for privacy, Google’s new tools could kneecap smaller advertising-supported businesses’ ability to sell ads.
For example, online publications rely on cookies to learn information about their users and sell advertising space. Some national publications with big enough audiences have managed to derive profits from digital ads, according to the Wall Street Journal. However, mid-size and local papers are fighting for their lives, thanks to the cannibalization of their advertising space by Google and Facebook. When companies can’t learn information about their online audience, advertisers are more likely to buy ads from middle-men ad exchanges, like Google’s, rather than directly from publishers.
What else is behind the closing of the cookie jar?
Google and other large tech companies are under immense pressure to give users at least the appearance that their privacy is in tact, and in users’ own hands. Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, the public, and regulators, awoke to how tech companies gobble up and profit from users’ data. Transparency, information, and choice — not the end, or even the slowing, of the practice of online data collection — has been the tech industry’s answer.
Apple has taken multiple swings at Facebook, distinguishing itself as a company that values privacy. Facebook has tried to rebrand as a privacy company, though it hasn’t announced any specifics about how it will either stem the collection of, or better protect, your data. Now, Google is amping up its efforts (after also focusing on privacy at last year’s I/O).
But Google’s new cookies feature fails to rein in the biggest seller of your data: Google. Whether intentional or not, this new “privacy” feature also serves to cement Google’s knowledge of, and ability to sell, everything about you.
Elizabeth Warren, u up?