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Mar 4, 2021

Google is changing the way ad tracking works

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No more following you all over the web to see what you're into and hitting you with ads everywhere you go.

Google is getting rid of third-party cookies in its Chrome browser next year and will stop selling ads based on your browsing history. No more tracking you all over the web to see what you’re into and targeting you with ads everywhere you are. 

The company also said in a blog post Wednesday that it won’t replace cookies with some other personal tracking technology. Google is moving to a “privacy first” ad-targeting strategy in which your online profile will be grouped anonymously with others like you, and you’ll get ads appropriate to your cohort.

Meg Leta Jones is a professor of communication, culture and technology at Georgetown. She said Google itself still has plenty of ways to get data about you. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Meg Leta Jones: Google knows a lot about you. It has a lot of different data sources. It has search. It has browser. Right now, it also has data analytics. The point here is that, oh my gosh, Google has so much data. And they also are gatekeepers for a lot of these other sources of information.

Molly Wood: Will this move do anything to improve consumer privacy, if that is the banner under which Google is selling this? Is that true in any way?

Jones: Google’s strategy is more privacy preserving. But for the consumer, there are potential problems with the amount of kind of increased reliance that it places on Google. It recenters it in the advertising industry. Of course, it’s front and center already. And so, critics argue that that in and of itself is not great for consumer privacy.

Wood: I gotta be honest. This doesn’t sound like it’s going to help me very much as a consumer.

Jones: I think that it’s potentially going to help you. And I will say that this change causes a bunch of ripple effects. It causes a bunch of other changes that could potentially help the consumer. It doesn’t take away Google’s place in the advertising ecosystem. But it does shake it up and in doing so, I think provides potential for benefits to the consumer.

Wood: We’re making these kind of incremental improvements to this privacy regime. I wonder, though, at the end of the day, isn’t the primary offender targeted advertising? If we just got rid of that, wouldn’t we be able to stop a lot of these machinations around who gets to follow who, where and how?

Jones: Targeted advertising making me vulnerable to some awful shoe ad repeatedly also makes me vulnerable to, for instance, foreign actors creating bots to target me. So, it’s of course important for people to pay attention to the tools that they use, but it’s really also important to keep pressuring policymakers to pass meaningful data protection laws at the state level and at the federal level, I think.

Wood: So, Google’s already in this great position. It has a bunch of data about us. It has a bunch of ways to collect that data, up to and including companies it owns, like Fitbit. What does getting rid of these third-party cookies mean for other companies, other publishers, other e-commerce sites? How does it affect them?

Jones: Well, they’re going to be just as reliant on Google advertising tools as they ever have been. The industry that’s most likely to be disrupted by this is, of course, advertising networks that operate and are trying to compete with Google and Facebook for advertising dollars, that operate outside of these dominant tools. And they are trying to figure out new and creative ways to track users, essentially to provide value to their customers that’s different than what Google and Facebook can provide through their advertising tools.

Wood: So potentially, it means that our interactions on the web with other ad networks maybe could get either more annoying, because there’ll be more overt attempts to sort of get our data, or just sneakier?

Jones: I would say it’s either more invasive or more annoying. It will depend on how the ad networks outside of Google and Facebook change their tracking strategies to see how those consent notifications will change in the future. But it potentially could be as annoying as it currently is, which is highly annoying.

Wood: What could some of the ripple effects be? What could happen within the digital ad industry as a result of this?

Jones: It’s possible that you have other things change. And in doing so, there’s an opportunity for competitors to creep in. So, when cookies first came around, they were really all about making the web a viable alternative to the giant of AOL, which was at the time — all online advertising money went to these big giants, and the vision was a decentralized ad space where you could have an online magazine and it could fund itself and could claim value to advertisers based on these tracking metrics. And when we start to rethink that model and how we might track users and deliver advertising value, I think then there’s the potential for different browsers to be, to be more competitive and different content-delivery mechanisms to be more competitive for advertising dollars.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

First off, here’s a post explaining third-party cookies, in case you still need a refresher on that.

And there is no end to the takes and comments and thoughts about what Google is doing here and how it might play out. One frequent refrain is that Google is ending this kind of third-party tracking because it’s found a better way to keep targeting users with ads based on its huge treasure trove of data.

That may definitely be the case. It’s likely that Google itself doesn’t need all the data it collects about us in order to understand our purchasing desires, which aren’t really that hard to figure out. It still does want a ton of data so it can train artificial intelligence. It can still use all its data to convince advertisers that even its broad cohorts are better than what the competition can offer. And it’s likely that having kind of invented the modern digital ad-tracking infrastructure, Google is now going to take it apart, and that’s going to damage a lot of companies built on that infrastructure.

But the fact is, Jones is right that ultimately this is a big shift combined with the other big shift, which is that Apple not only rolled out its new nutrition labels but will also let people opt out of personalized ad tracking. So, at the end of the day, the winds are shifting. Companies are going to have to find different ways to advertise online. It is possible that this whole castle we’ve built on top of targeted ads and personal information might get taken apart brick by brick. And I also understand why everyone might be a little suspicious that Google is gonna start the demolition.

These are complicated times.

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