Google has announced a plan to tackle privacy issues in online advertising, as the company attempts to chart a middle ground between Apple’s privacy-first approach and the needs of advertisers – including itself.
Google will use AI to bundle an individual user with similar visitors in an attempt to convince users that they don’t need to block all tracking on the internet to preserve their privacy. It will also use a “trusted server” to store adverts without needing to connect to hundreds of providers across the wider web, and cryptography to ensure that advertisers only find out the information they need to pay websites.
“We believe that the notion that ‘it’s privacy or it’s advertising’ is a false choice,” said Chetna Bindra, Google’s head of user trust and privacy for advertising. “We really do believe there is a way to meet user expectations, and protect their identity, while allowing for ad supported content.”
Google says it will shortly begin to experiment in Chrome, its browser, with how to actually do that. A new “privacy sandbox” bundles together five proposals with bird-themed code-names including Floc (federated learning of cohorts), Fledge (first “locally-executed decision over groups” experiment) and turtledove (two uncorrelated requests, then locally-executed decision on victory), which explore various ways with letting advertisers continue to target ads on the internet, but without the vast surveillance ecosystem that exists to support that.
It’s an approach that differs from the simpler option selected by Apple for Safari: just block all the surveillance. Bindra said there are multiple reasons why the company went a different route.
One is that Google has a more rosy view than its competitor of the importance of advertising. “We do believe that ads play a major role in making the internet an accessible and open place,” she said, specifically siting the need for marketers “to connect with people interested in what they have to offer”.
But that optimism is paired with a pessimistic view of what blocking surveillance actually means: an arms race between the blockers and the blocked. “A large focus of this effort has been to ensure the ad industry is not being driven towards workarounds for their business where they’re actually circumventing true user privacy,” Bindra said. “We’ve certainly seen that happen over the last couple of years, where companies have leaned into things like fingerprinting and other alternative techniques to be able to work around the absence of third party cookies in certain browsers.”
But whatever Google does to online advertising, the company walks a tightrope. With Chrome’s share of the browser market and Google’s share of the online advertising market, it has to keep one eye on the Competition and Markets Authority, which has already announced plans to try to limit Google’s power. At the same time, it needs to satisfy the Information Commissioner’s Office, which has launched its own investigation into privacy in the adtech ecosystem.