Google’s privacy-first web isn’t really what you think it is
When Apple first announced its plans to introduce opt-in ad-tracking in iOS 14 the whole advertisement industry was left in shock.
Facebook left no stone unturned in pushing back against Apple’s already postponed software update — be it by criticizing the iPhone maker in full-page newspaper ads or through releasing banners messages that showcased users why personalized ads are good.
It wasn’t surprising to see Facebook launching an all attack against Apple. The social media king has created a billion-dollar advertisement network over the years and was about to stare at huge losses.
However, it was astonishing to see the other advertisement giant, Google not raising a single eyebrow with respect to the iOS 14 changes. In fact, they were quick enough to embrace the feature across their apps.
True, Google has its own operating system, Android. But still, their Admob SDK is used in over 100K apps on the App Store. That’s a pretty big advertisement revenue at stake.
But now that Google has finally revealed its own plans to move away from third-party cookies, we finally know what had been brewing in the past year.
On March 3rd, the Alphabet-owned search engine once again confirmed its plans to phase out third-party tracking cookies by the end of 2022. The most intriguing aspect of the announcement was their commitment to not build, use or support any alternative user-level ad tracking methods. At least not on Chrome, which is by far the most dominant browser on the web.
While the intention to transition towards a privacy-first web is certainly a refreshing change for consumers and privacy advocates yet Google’s decision to alter how web tracking works is certainly drawing criticism from the other players of the digital advertising industry.
Google’s bold move to shift towards anonymized group tracking only paints a rosy picture and there’s more than what meets the eye. The search engine giant has conveniently swept a few things under the carpet. Things that prove that Google will eventually gain the most from these changes.
Google’s Privacy First Web Is Actually Monopoly First Web as the Tech Giant Stands To Benefit From It the Most
For starters, Google isn’t banning all cookies. There’s a difference between third-party and first-party cookies.
First-party cookies are created on the same domain as the website and aren’t shared elsewhere. They’re useful to improve the overall user experience — be it through storing analytics data or login credentials.
On the other hand, third-party cookies are pieces of code embedded by advertising networks on websites to track your movements across the web. Besides acting as cross-site tracking agents, third-party cookies help ad publishers build user-profiles(like you’d have seen in the Netflix documentary, Social Dilemma) and set up targeted ad campaigns for individual users.
Now when Google decides to spell the end of third-party cookies, it’s doing so because they don’t require to track you uniquely anymore to show relevant ads and suggestions. The Alphabet-owned company already has an enormous amount of first-party user data collected through their various products and services.
So even though Google is moving towards a more privacy-focused solution, the move stands to benefit the search engine king the most. Unlike them, small advertisers don’t possess enough first-party data to serve relevant ads to the user. Instead, ad agencies used to rely on the user browsing activity for selling ads.
Once the third-party cookies phase-out, advertisers would be compelled to be more dependent on Google, which not only owns the most dominant browser in the world but can also keep collecting first-party information through Search, YouTube, and other services.
In effect, Google is trying to force companies to ask them for the data rather than letting them gather it on their own. This means advertisers will still get the same level of user data but only by paying a premium cost to Google from now on.
It’ll be foolish to believe that Google will turn its back on the very thing that made them a tech giant just for the sake of customers.
Privacy-first web is like a doctor saying I won’t drug you while they’d already injected a serum in your body long back.
It’s also like Google saying user privacy is important, so let us act as the gatekeeper of all your online data
Sardonically, Google’s privacy-first web has managed to kill two birds with one stone. They’ve won the hearts of consumers and ensured their competitors are kept at bay.
Privacy first web is actually a case of Google moving the goalposts midway and defining their own standardization of privacy in a way that suits their agenda and gives better control over the digital ecosystem. Effectively, it’s a monopoly first web in disguise.
Facebook’s Response to Google’s Privacy First Web Shows Targeted Ads Aren’t Going Anywhere
We already know of Facebook’s efforts to disrupt Apple’s anonymous ad tracking feature. Facebook protested against the iPhone maker by bringing the small business card.
There, Apple wasn’t adopting harsh practices like Google just did. Instead, the Cupertino tech giant was only giving users more transparency and a choice.
In Google’s case, they’ve confirmed that the days of third-party cookies are numbered. Plus, they’re ensuring Chrome won’t support other user-level identifiers methods for tracking.
In essence, Google doesn’t believe in giving small advertisers a choice. Yet contrary to Facebook’s criticism of Apple, their response to Google’s latest changes has been deaf tone.
It’s increasingly becoming apparent that the social media king has very little to lose from it and there are quite a few reasons for it.
For one, it’s worth noting that Google phasing out cookies is only restricted to the browser and not on their Android operating system as a whole yet. This means privacy-first web doesn’t impact the mobile advertising industry — which is where Facebook’s Audience Network draws most of its revenue from.
Besides, Facebook had already moved away from third-party cookies and towards first-party data more than two years ago.
Yet the biggest reason why Facebook would only set to gain from Google’s privacy-first web is the fact that upcoming privacy sandbox technology won’t end targeted advertisements. Instead, it might only make personalized ads more effective — a boon for publishers and a privacy nightmare for end-users.
For the unfamiliar, Google’s Federated Learning of Cohorts(FLoC) is the technology that’ll replace third-party cookies. With the help of FLoCs, Google plans to aggregate its audiences into groups(or cohorts) based on similar interests.
From what they’ve revealed so far, Google servers won’t store your browsing habits and the user categorization would happen on the client-side(which is your Chrome browser) through on-device machine learning.
Essentially, FLoC is Google’s bet to make the Chrome browser do the user profiling which third-party trackers could do earlier
So, FLoC won’t really solve the privacy concerns of cookies. Instead, it’ll open better opportunities for advertisers to sell items to similar people based on behavior, demography, and other metrics.
Advertisers don’t really care who you are as long as they can target customers and ensure engagement with their products — which explains why Facebook is actually going to gain a lot from this change.
Google could sense that people are becoming more privacy-conscious. No wonder, Firefox and Safari browsers were gaining more market share through their privacy-preserving moves.
The tech giant had to counter that threat in a bid to strengthen its monopoly over the ad ecosystem while staying at arm's length from anti-trust ramifications.
So, while the introduction of FLoC does ensure that no one can collect enough user data in a creepy manner, it also sets a precedent for the future of digital advertising.
Google has ensured that not many ad networks would stand a chance to build tools for mining user data in a privacy-preserved way. They’re also making the traditional methods of user tracking on the web obsolete. It’s a clear indication that Google is trying to consolidate its position as the kingpin of the advertisement industry.
“Don’t be evil” is a phrase that was considered Google’s official motto once. But now that it’s no longer considered, one can expect them to be evil — as the Alphabet-owned company strives to entrench its mark on the entire advertisement industry.
This story was originally published on The Big Tech.