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This article was published on August 27, 2019

Google accused of ‘privacy gaslighting’ over its anti-tracking policy

Google accused of ‘privacy gaslighting’ over its anti-tracking policy
Ravie Lakshmanan

Google’s watered-down anti-tracking policy for the web has invited fresh criticism from experts who say the search giant’s move amounts to ‘privacy gaslighting.’

Last week, the company announced proposals for what it calls a ‘privacy sandbox’ — a solution that aims to protect your privacy while also offering advertisers a way to show you targeted ads without resorting to more opaque techniques like fingerprinting.

But what Google outlined stood in stark contrast to stricter anti-tracking countermeasures adopted by Apple and Mozilla, both of which have tracking protection enabled by default in Safari and Firefox.

Google even went on to suggest that blocking cookies entirely could be counterproductive to user privacy, stating that doing so would encourage ad tech vendors to switch to privacy-violating practices like browser and device fingerprinting.

But Jonathan Mayer and Arvind Narayanan, a pair of computer scientists from Princeton University, have criticized Google’s disingenuous attempts to paint third-party cookie tracking as the lesser of two evils.

The need for web privacy

“We’re calling this move privacy gaslighting, because it’s an attempt to persuade users and policymakers that an obvious privacy protection — already adopted by Google’s competitors — isn’t actually a privacy protection,” Mayer and Narayanan said.

Stating Google can’t provide meaningful web privacy while protecting its business interests, the researchers also called out the company for endorsing ideas such as privacy-preserving ad targeting that it dismissed as impractical a couple of years ago:

Privacy preserving ad targeting has been an active research area for over a decade. One of us (Mayer) repeatedly pushed Google to adopt these methods during the Do Not Track negotiations (about 2011-2013). Google’s response was to consistently insist that these approaches are not technically feasible.

For example: “To put it simply, client-side frequency capping does not work at scale.” We are glad that Google is now taking this direction more seriously, but a few belated think pieces aren’t much progress.”

Apple, for instance, is already testing privacy-preserving ad measurement, a technique that allows marketers to measure the effectiveness of their ad campaigns on the web without compromising on your privacy.

Balancing privacy and business interests

It’s no surprise that Google is feeling the heat from its rivals — particularly Apple — over online ad tracking. The iPhone maker’s WebKit anti-tracking policy — which treats online tracking as a security vulnerability — has upped the stakes, putting pressure on the tech giant to respond with similar privacy-first solutions or risk losing customer trust.

But Google’s twin role as a web browser developer and owner of the world’s largest advertising platform has pitted one against the other, landing it between a rock and a hard place.

For a company that mainly makes money selling ads, taking an anti-tracking warpath by embracing an aggressive Apple-like approach with Google Chrome could potentially end up hurting its bottom line.

On the contrary, acting as a ‘gatekeeper’ to restructure the underlying mechanics of the web also risks inviting more antitrust scrutiny given Google’s dominance of the browser market, something Apple and Mozilla are unlikely to face owing to their single-digit market share.

In the end, privacy sandbox is still a concept — and not a feature ready to be shipped in the next iteration of Chrome. But it will be doubtless interesting how this debate plays out.

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