Thomas Gallatin / March 5, 2021

Will Google Really Cease Tracking Users’ Web Browsing?

Altruistic concern for protecting privacy is not what this move is really about.

Tech giant Google has announced it will end its practice of tracking users’ data across multiple websites. The Wall Street Journal reports that Google “plans next year to stop using or investing in tracking technologies that uniquely identify web users as they move from site to site across the internet.” Is this too good to be true?

Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, is the world’s largest digital advertising company. As the WSJ further reports, “About 40% of the money that flows from advertisers to publishers on the open internet — meaning digital advertising outside of closed systems such as Google Search, YouTube or Facebook — goes through Google’s ad buying tools, according to Jounce.”

The widely used practice of tracking individuals’ web browsing via third-party cookies in order to yield better-targeted ad campaigns has increasingly raised the specter of whether doing so violates privacy rights. The fact of the matter is that the entire ad-tech world runs on third-party cookies. That’s not inherently a bad thing, of course, as certain embedded payment platforms require them, as well as software providing website analytics. The trouble is that third-party cookie tracking has become so prevalent that it’s nearly impossible for the average user to browse the Web without giving away personally identifiable information to third parties that never requested consent.

In announcing this decision, Google product manager David Temkin explained, “If digital advertising doesn’t evolve to address the growing concerns people have about their privacy and how their personal identity is being used, we risk the future of the free and open web.”

But are Google’s motives really that altruistic? Unlikely.

It appears there are two major reasons behind this move. First, both the European Union and the U.S. Congress are looking to crack down on Big Tech’s abuse of users’ privacy rights, and Google hopes to get out in front of the coming changes. That leads directly into the second reason, which is to head off the competition. Google has already cornered much of the digital ad market, and it’s acting to maintain its near monopoly by squelching competition from fast-growing companies like Trade Desk. By appearing to be on the side of the angels, Google can encourage legislative “fixes” to “solve” the user-privacy problem when its actual aim is to cut the legs out from under its competition.

This is likely a move by Google to deflect guilt while seeking to maintain control of the digital advertising landscape.

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