Comment by Michal Feix, Vice-Chair of the SPIR Executive Board
A few days ago, Google announced in David Temkin's blog post that it was time to stop tracking individual users online and time to end individual targeting of ads on the Internet. However, such a call needs to be explored in more depth to understand how absurd this announcement is and how it represents further abuse of Google’s dominant position. In fact, Google's statement has nothing to do with improving users' privacy, as it may seem at first glance.
What is it all about? Last year, Google announced that it would end support for third-party cookies in its Chrome browser, and instead introduced new Privacy Sandbox, which aims to allow delivery of ads to users based on their interests and also prevents user tracking when their browsing the Internet.
Google’s idea of doing it is to group individual users in so-called cohorts, which Google refers to as FLOCs (Federated Learning of Cohorts). Users are supposed to be assigned to these groups according to their individual interests and preferences, and then, based on this grouping, they will receive the same type of ads corresponding to their interests. Such interest groups will thus include users sharing the same characteristics, based ie. on their interest in fishing or how often and where they buy furniture.
You probably already recognize where this is flawed. Targeting of ads using interest groups/cohorts is nothing new on the Internet and many advertising systems are using such practice for a long, long time. To create such interest groups, however, it is first necessary to have individual inputs and information about those individual users, so that it is possible to classify them into corresponding groups. Today third-party cookies are used for this purpose, which Google decided to kill-off in Chrome in the near future. Unlike all its competitors, Google itself will not be affected. Google already has and will have enough individual information collected about its users to continue with tracking and classifying every user through profiling.
Let's take, for the sake of an example, mobile phones with Google Android, which can already very thoroughly evaluate user behavior according to applications installed and based on their usage. Many Android apps depend on analytical tools from Google. In addition, Google may individually track user behavior in the context of ads being served and - depending on the degree of interaction with them - retrieve additional information about users’ preferences. Google will continue to gather a huge amount of individual user data, dynamically classifying them into various interest groups and presenting all of this only as large, anonymous groups, where no individual tracking or monitoring is taking place. Google just wrapped up another abuse of its dominant position in web browser market under the flag for greater users’ privacy. PR nicely done.
Google Chrome, by its very nature, has access to everything a user does in Chrome. He has an overview of what page he visited, how long he spent there and all of this is associated by a very specific user identity in a form of Google account. In addition, these information will be further enriched by the user's behavior on his Android device, paired with a Google account. And all this is being promoted as an ultimate solution to our problems with privacy on the Internet, with those naughty third-party cookies being responsible.
When Google acquired DoubleClick more than ten years ago, it became de facto the largest emitor of third-party cookies on the Internet. Those third-party cookies that it is now killing-off in order to fight for better privacy of users. And now presenting a solution that - what a surprise - blocks everyone else but Google from tracking individual users, using Google’s dominant tools like Android and Google’s web services. Someone is preaching water and drinking wine here.
When all this is uncovered in debates, Google usually throws a popular type of "they do it too" argument, pointing to Apple with Safari and Mozilla with Firefox, which has gradually come up with some form of third-party cookie restrictions in recent years. The silent and fundamental difference here is that Chrome has a market share of around 70%, making it a dominant browser and that Google is also a dominant worldwide online ads operator, unlike Apple or Mozilla.
Just to give you a rough idea - some time ago the UK’s CMA stated in its 440-page report that Google and Facebook provide almost 40% of the traffic to large publishers. The report goes on to say that around £14 billion was spent on digital advertising in the UK in 2019, around 80% of which was spent on Google and Facebook. With the blocking of third-party cookies in dominant Chrome, under the pretext of privacy protection, we will inevitably observe a further drop in publishers' revenue, which will be redistributed to these largest dominants.
Each of us who picks up a phone or sits down at a computer or laptop becomes a slave of the environment that is often controlled by the dominant software developers on these devices. Google dominates the world in an online search. It has more than 90% of the search market almost anywhere in the world, thanks in part to an interesting business agreement with Apple. Android offers a platform that spreads Google’s set of pre-installed apps, among which its competitors find hard to get next to. Google provides its Chrome as the foundation for Microsoft's Edge browser and for many others. If we take such a device into our hands, Google knows exactly what we do and what we are looking for, and based on that it also targets advertising. With its proposed actions with third-party cookies, will further strengthen its dominant position. All under the false illusion of privacy in the interest of users.
The truth is that any topic of increasing user privacy is today a "trending topic", and anything that can be wrapped-up under improving users’ privacy is selling well. Google is well aware of this. In its recent announcement a few days ago, it actually confirmed what some of us were speculating about since Google announced its first intention to abandon third-party cookie support in Chrome last year - that it is not by any means an attempt to improve users’ privacy, but an attempt to further abuse its dominant position, for which it has been fined several times already. And no longer fined in Europe only. Clearly, there are many good reasons why Europe needs the Digital Markets Act.