Why Google Will Stop Selling Ads Based on User-Tracking Browser Data

Google has planted a flag in the digital-advertising ground: The internet giant said it will no longer sell ads using personally identifiable information from web browsers.

Google already announced that its Chrome browser would phase out support for third-party cookies by 2022.

Now, “we’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products,” David Temkin, Google’s director of product management for ads privacy and trust, wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

Instead of using user-level identifiers, Google will use “privacy preserving” application programming interfaces that will “still delivering results for advertisers and publishers,” Temkin wrote.

Why the change? In a nutshell, Google sees the handwriting on the wall.

The company acknowledges that user-specific tracking advertising systems will not pass regulatory muster — in the U.S., U.K., Europe and elsewhere — and that such approaches will not “not meet rising consumer expectations for privacy,” according to Temkin. He cited a 2019 Pew Research Center survey finding that 72% of Americans feel that almost all of what they do online is being tracked by advertisers or other companies, while 81% said that the potential risks they face because of data collection outweigh the benefits.

“People shouldn’t have to accept being tracked across the web in order to get the benefits of relevant advertising,” Temkin wrote. “And advertisers don’t need to track individual consumers across the web to get the performance benefits of digital advertising.”

Google’s announcement comes as Apple is implementing a new opt-in requirement for users with iOS 14 devices to grant permission to be tracked for advertising purposes, a change expected to go live later in March.

Google calls its privacy-enhanced solution for serving targeted ads Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). That hides individuals within “large crowds of people with common interests,” as Temkin put it. The company’s Chrome team intends to make FLoC-based cohorts available for public testing through origin trials with its next release this month, and Google plans to begin testing FLoC-based cohorts with advertisers in Google Ads in Q2 of 2021, according to Temkin.

Chrome will introduce new user-privacy controls in April and “will expand on these controls in future releases, as more proposals reach the origin trial stage,” per Temkin.

While it’s phasing out use of third-party cookies, Google will continue to use first-party data to serve ads on YouTube and other Google services. In addition, Google will still “support first-party relationships on our ad platforms for partners, in which they have direct connections with their own customers,” Temkin noted.

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