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Google doubles down on its plan to disrupt ads that target Web history

Google said Wednesday it will not participate in efforts by other advertising tech companies to build new tools to track people around the Web based on their browser history, a decision that could have implications both for privacy and antitrust.

The move shows Google is doubling down on an admission it made a year ago — that most people do not like the idea of advertisers amassing their data and using it to show them targeted ads. But by pushing for more privacy online, the company is also undercutting a vast advertising industry that has no choice but to play by Google’s rules, underlining just how dominant the company is at a time when regulators are already investigating it for anti-competitive behavior.

“As our industry has strived to deliver relevant ads to consumers across the web, it has created a proliferation of individual user data across thousands of companies,” David Temkin, a Google ads executive focused on privacy and trust, said in a blog post. “This has led to an erosion of trust.”

Google had already committed early last year to blocking third-party cookies — little bits of code used to track people online — from its Chrome browser by the end of 2021. Because Chrome is the most popular way people access the Internet worldwide, the move sent advertisers scrambling to find alternative ways of targeting ads. Some of the proposals involve combining and matching lists of emails in vast databases, using complex math to hide specific identities from advertisers.

But Google will not participate in those solutions, it said today. Instead, it will focus on developing its own tools that it says preserve privacy while still offering effective advertising. Its core proposal involves lumping people in large groups based on their interests, then letting advertisers target those groups instead of the individuals.

Holding the keys to this new system only deepens Google’s power over the Web, said Lukasz Olejnik, an independent privacy researcher and consultant.

“Competitors may hold justified concerns about the future,” Olejnik said. “Could Google unilaterally switch off the new solution if they so wanted?”

Google has tremendous influence over the online advertising industry. Over the past two decades, it bought up many of the companies that form the infrastructure that matches digital ads with people online. Today, it controls tools used by Web publishers who sell ad space and advertisers who buy the ads, plus a major exchange that helps connect the two. In addition, its massive video platform YouTube and the Google search engine together make it the largest seller of digital ad space in the world.

As skepticism of big tech has grown among consumers and politicians, the need to appear supportive of user privacy has grown. Apple, which largely sells phones and software instead of targeted ads, has largely led the way, clamping down on tracking IDs on its Safari browser and more recently on iPhones themselves. That’s led to a fight with Facebook, which derives billions in revenue from selling ads on mobile phones.

Google has forged a middle path, slowly following Apple’s moves while trying to build alternatives that still support advertising. Finding ways to allow advertising to work online without pushing consumers toward ad blockers or other tools that protect privacy but undercut revenue for Web publishers is necessary to help the Web flourish, the company says.

“Keeping the Internet open and accessible for everyone requires all of us to do more to protect privacy,” Temkin said. “That means an end to not only third-party cookies, but also any technology used for tracking individual people as they browse the web.”

There’s a catch though. The changes do not apply to mobile phones running Google’s Android operating system, where the company still provides advertisers with a personalized ID for each user. Mobile Internet use is fast outpacing desktop browsers.

Google will still let advertisers target individuals based on emails consumers have willingly shared with them. That has deepened a push by companies to build their own customer databases by getting consumers to download their apps and give up their email addresses and phone numbers. This move to “first-party data” also benefits Google itself, which uses its vast knowledge on billions of logged-in YouTube, Gmail and Chrome users to targets ads toward them.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

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