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Jan 21, 2020

Less, please! Google responds to pressure to eliminate cookies collecting our data

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"Right now, there’s a lot of pressure on Google to be a much healthier part of the internet."

Google recently announced some big privacy changes for its internet browser, Chrome. It’s planning to make obsolete what are known as third-party cookies. Cookies are the trackers that advertisers plant so that when you shop for shoes one time, you’ll then see ads for them … forever. It’ll also put a limit on the amount of data websites can collect.

Other browsers have already made moves to cut tracking and preserve privacy, but what Google does might be significant in that it may change the way the whole web works. 

“Here’s the deal with Chrome, it is now about 11 years old almost and it’s the most widely used browser on the web,” said Stephen Shankland, senior editor at CNET. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Stephen Shankland: Ads got a bit more in your face — video, sound animation — and people started thinking about blocking ads. That was a few years ago, and now what people are realizing is that ads are this vehicle for invading your privacy. The realization we’ve had in the last few years is that browsers have a role to play in protecting your privacy. A lot of browser competitors take a more assertive role in trying to protect your privacy; Google has been a laggard in this area, but it’s now on the bandwagon as well. What’s going on here is we’re now moving from an assumption that a browser has a much more active role to play in protecting your privacy.

Jack Stewart: Is this Google just trying to get ahead of being accused of being evil?

Shankland: Right now, there’s a lot of pressure on Google to be a much healthier part of the internet, and this is a key part of that, I think. More than a billion people use Chrome, so when Google changes how it operates, that has a very broad effect on a lot of people — not just consumers, but the developers who create websites. This definitely could help improve the reputation of Google online. 

Stewart: Is that pressure coming from us consumers, or is Google anticipating pressure from regulators and others?

Shankland: It’s coming from many directions — from consumers, increasingly. There was the Cambridge Analytica scandal at Facebook that really helped elevate awareness for people about just how little privacy we have online. That’s had a lot of ripple effects. One of them is with regulators who are now pushing to protect privacy more. The European regulators have been much more aggressive than the U.S., but we see action here in the U.S. as well, in particular with California. There’s a general shift in general consumer attitudes, but also in regulatory attitudes, but also in the expectations that a lot of technology companies have about how they should be operating. You can be cynical and say that this is just to avoid bad PR, but I think there’s some earnestness, here, on the part of technology companies that they do, to some degree, want to do the right thing.

Stewart: The cynic in me wonders how effective a move like this will really be. Don’t advertisers and others just find different ways of tracking us and monitoring us?

Shankland: Yes, definitely. There’s a particular technology called fingerprinting, which relies on measuring bits of information that your browser releases. If you have enough of those little bits of information, you can actually profile people without using cookies or other techniques. Fingerprinting is increasingly important as cookies get blocked. However, there also are pretty serious efforts among the browser companies to stop fingerprinting or to make it harder, to make it less effective. Google is also pursuing those efforts, virtually every browser maker is right now. There’s a little identifying piece of text that a browser releases called the user agent string. It’s very, very important, probably the single most important piece of data for fingerprinting efforts, and Google this year is going to be freezing that, so that essentially becomes a useless piece of information for fingerprinting. Other browser makers plan to do that. Basically, fingerprinting is going to get harder. In the big picture, it’s a cat-and-mouse game. There are advertising companies, there are data brokers, there are publishers who want to track their users. As one avenue gets shut down, they start pursuing other avenues.

Stewart: Is Google proposing some alternative? Presumably advertisers will still argue that it’s important to be able to track us in some way.

Shankland: Google has a variety of proposals. One of the interesting things about its proposals for privacy is they’re being more accommodating to publishers and to advertisers. However, there are a lot of changes coming to how much that tracking happens. Google’s proposals, and some of the actions by other browser makers, definitely make it harder to track you, but, they’re also trying to accommodate advertisers to some degree. For example, one of the important parts of advertising is something called attribution, which is knowing when an ad has been effective — if somebody clicked on it, for example. Google and Apple, and some of the other browser makers, are working on ways [where] things like this can still be measured, but in a way that doesn’t infringe privacy. We’ve seen a general shift, a lot of technology companies recognizing privacy is important. You’ve seen it from Google, Apple, you’ve seen it from Facebook. What we haven’t seen right now is that same acknowledgment on the part of the advertising industry. It’s quite possible, though, that as the pressure mounts, that they will also come to the realization that they need to find a way to make their business work without building immensely detailed profiles on everybody on the internet.

Related links: More insight from Jack Stewart

Check out Stephen Shankland’s reporting on this at CNET, and also Google’s blog page. 

Ultimately the reason our privacy has a price tag is because most of the internet is free, or at least ad-supported. That might have worked fine as a model in the early days of connectivity, before smartphones, and broadband — always-on connections. But now, we expect all our devices to work for free: smart speakers, connected thermostats or video doorbells. There’s a ton of tech that goes into making those things work, and there’s usually no monthly fee. So, what are we giving up? That’s what Forbes delves into in an article that explains the price for our privacy.

We mentioned a new California law to give consumers more rights over their data. As of this year, people can request a copy of what companies hold on them, and request that it’s deleted. But the implementation isn’t going super smoothly. Some consumers are reporting that companies are demanding even more personally identifying data to make sure they’re not disclosing sensitive information to the wrong person. In some cases, people are being asked for copies of their ID, or selfies.

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