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Google says it won't stalk you across the web with cookies. Experts think it's a clever ploy to consolidate its ads empire.

Submitted by Tech Insider on March 6, 2021 - 5:59am

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Google made a big announcement on Wednesday — it's going to stop following people round the web. Sort of.

The tech giant said in a blog post that it will be moving away from technologies that track individual people round the web.

This followed a similarly privacy-minded announcement in January, when Google promised to phase out third-party cookies — which also help advertisers target people with ads — by 2022.

"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," Google director David Temkin wrote in the blog post. 

In its blog Google touted a new ad system that gives individuals anonymity online by grouping them together with people who share similar interests, called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).

FLoC is part collection of proposed new advertising tools that Google has bundled together in what it calls its "Privacy Sandbox."

For advertisers that means that while their ads won't be targeted at specific individuals, they'll be able to target broad sets of people with specific interests.

On the face of it, this is a big deal. Most internet users know that the way Google makes money is by tracking much of what you do online, then using that information to target ads at you, often to creepy effect.

But six experts Insider spoke to voiced varying levels of skepticism over how much the changes will actually protect people's privacy online.

Some even viewed it as a clever ploy by Google to further entrench its advertising empire.

A PR move that could simultaneously make Google more dominant

Many of the experts Insider spoke to felt the announcement was a way for Google to try and placate users who no longer trust Big Tech companies with their data.

"My feeling is that Google understands that the writing is on the wall for third-party tracking – the public is becoming more critical of targeted advertising – so it's smart to announce a phaseout," said Dr. Nakeema Stefflbauer, a tech policy consultant and expert.

In Google's blog post it cited a Pew Research poll that said 72% people feel that almost all of what they do online is being tracked by advertisers.

"It's difficult not to conclude that, bearing in mind Google's business model is based around using users data, that Google have seen the polls and realized users are losing faith in them, and so this move may be enough to assuage that loss of confidence," said Professor Alan Woodward, a computer scientist at the University of Surrey.

The benefits of shifting to FLoC go beyond good PR — some experts believe its a tactical ploy to further cement Google's dominance in the digital ads market.

"Google will come off as being progressive and ahead of privacy regulations to governments, and to advertisers, it is a call to jump ship from other networks to Google's own alternative framework [FLoC]," said Prof. Sastry.

Eliot Bendinelli, a researcher at Privacy International, thinks that by cementing its advertising dominance Google could pose a bigger privacy threat to users further down the road.

"Google is using raising privacy concerns and increased regulatory attention as marketing arguments to justify changes that might reinforce its dominant position. The reality is that with the Privacy Sandbox, Google is developing and forcing onto users and competitors a new set of tools that strengthen its dominant position on the market," said Bendinelli.

Prof. Sastry also said that Google's control of Chrome could give it a "stranglehold over internet advertising."

This is because the change will mean third-parties — like Facebook and companies that sell digital ads who aren't Google — won't be able to track people round the web using cookies.

Google however will still have lots of data about people it can glean directly and use to track them because of its suite of first-party products, like Gmail and Google Maps.

Bendinelli added that the wealth of data Google gleans from its first-party apps means it won't be out in the cold when it comes to user data.

"Google is in an absolutely dominant position here given the prominence of its services like Gmail, Youtube or Google Maps. This change won't affect the advertising giant in the same way it will affects its competitors given that millions of users are logged in a Google account when using these services, allowing Google to track and target them at its will," he said.

Google is shifting from targeting individuals to profiling large sets of people — which comes with its own dangers

In its blog, Google FLoC is good for privacy because it can "hide individuals within large crowds of people with common interests."

But although Google is holding FLoC up as a way to make itself look privacy-conscious, it could lead the company into another PR nightmare surrounding AI ethics.

Dr. Kutoma Wakunuma of DeMontfort University said one of the disadvantages of technology like FLoC is it can encourage "social sorting," i.e. breaking people down into groups like race, gender and ethnicity likes and dislikes. She said this can open up a "whole host of other challenges."

"The thing to focus on is not the 'hiding' but 'the crowd' — it takes a lot of machine learning to make these cohorts accurate as groups of 'people like you,'" Professor Eerke Boiten of DeMontfort University told Insider.

"In that context, it is relevant that Google has just got rid of some of their key people who were working to keep machine learning honest and fair," he said, referencing Google's firing of  AI ethics researcher Dr. Timnit Gebru in December, a move that sparked an intense internal and industry backlash. In February it fired a second AI ethicist, Margaret Mitchell.

It will help strengthen privacy, but it's too little too late

Professor Nishanth Sastry, who specializes in tracking technologies online at the University of Surrey, said new technologies other than cookies have emerged for tracking people, used by other big firms like Facebook.

"Even if Google does not offer alternate ways of tracking users through its products, it will do little to prevent Facebook pixels," he said.

Dr. Wakunuma said while the announcement was welcome, Google needs to do more to protect user data. She added that Google is already behind the curve when it comes to blocking cookies.

"Google in a sense is merely playing catch-up with likes of Safari and Firefox browsers which have long since stopped using third party cookies," she said.

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