Google recently announced it will take major steps to “fundamentally enhance privacy on the web” by limiting third-party cookies in its browser, Chrome. There’s a problem, however: It’s categorically untrue.
Rather than representing a meaningful step toward protecting user privacy, as it claims, Google’s “Privacy Sandbox” is a brazen move to eliminate its digital advertising competitors while continuing to construct a monopoly of personally identifiable information on billions of users.
It all starts with cookies, the internet kind, which are typically used to track users across the web. Cookies save people’s personal search data and internet behavior to inform targeted advertising. Google does robust business in targeted ads, reaping $135 billion in 2019. Other third-party companies did, too. But not anymore.
Google’s new policy will eliminate third-party cookies — for privacy, they say. But the cookies will all still be there. It’s the third parties themselves that will not be. By barring third-party cookies, Privacy Sandbox is effectively prohibiting all the third-party advertising companies hired by individual websites from operating on Chrome.
In other words, Google’s policy is not about eliminating cookies — which aren’t even that intrusive compared to the trove of personal information Google has on users. Rather, the policy is about eliminating competition and ensuring Google is the only company that continues to collect all the revenue-generating, personally identifiable information.
It’s also a way for Google to leverage billions more out of companies that want to advertise on its platform. Any business that wants to advertise on Chrome, which has close to 70 percent of the global browser market share, will be forced to use Google products. Because the competition for third-party data collection will be banned, companies will only be able to measure the effectiveness of their ads if they buy services from Google.
The phrase “Privacy Sandbox,” then, is less a representation of Google’s intentions than it is a smokescreen for Google to eliminate its competition, engage in monopolistic behavior, and hoard even more personally identifiable data on its users.
This should concern us all for two important reasons. First, digital advertising is increasingly no longer a free market — something 50 state and territory attorneys general and the Department of Justice are now investigating.
Importantly, this latest move represents a pattern of behavior by Google, wherein the company uses privacy as a pretext to benefit itself financially. In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission closed an antitrust investigation into allegations that Google biased its search results, buying into Google’s argument that its attempts to throttle the competition merely represented “product improvement” that shielded the company from antitrust scrutiny. Helpfully for Google, its “product improvements” increased its advertising revenues while rivals faded away. In 2020, Google’s closest competitor in the search market is Bing, which has 2.5 percent of the global market share.
Google’s attempts to consolidate data collection are equally concerning, because Google has a history of shockingly cavalier behavior with your personal data — that is, information not only about your online behavior but also about your ethnicity, disabilities, sexual orientation, and health problems.
Although it claims to take privacy “very seriously,” the company has worked with the U.S. government to conduct warrantless searches on Americans, failed to protect user data from intrusion by the National Security Administration, and helped China build a censorship regime. In fact, Google continues to help China surveil its citizens.
Google has also not been upfront with users about how closely it tracks them. Google’s Android phone continues to track users’ location even when they’ve turned off the tracking service. The company allows apps to scan users’ emails, and its products listen to their conversations. The company has recently begun hoovering up health data — including full individual medical records and the health data of 28 million Fitbit users — while refusing to provide clarity about what it’s doing with the information.
Now Google is seeking to further its data monopoly — in addition to its digital advertising dominance — by kicking ad competitors off Chrome. That Google would take such obviously anti-competitive steps while under antitrust investigation by nearly every state attorney general in America, not to mention the Department of Justice, demonstrates a stunning degree of arrogance.
But it’s unsurprising, given how Google is shamelessly cloaking this latest policy change in the language of caring about user privacy when its actions repeatedly demonstrate that user privacy is perhaps what Google cares about the least.