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Is Google Chrome’s Latest Update a Case of Ask No Questions, Hear no Lies?

By Jonathan Barkan, Business Development Director, Platform161

This article originally appeared in Dutch on Emerce.

“There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.” A famous saying, popularized by Mark Twain – though he credited the phrase to politician Disraeli, its actual origin remains disputed. Perhaps there’s a joke in there somewhere – the quote itself misquoted. It certainly doesn’t feel out of place in 2019.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, democratizing all the world’s knowledge mutated into battling fake news. And for advertisers, greater accountability and ROI became – at least on certain major video sites – an impossible game of avoiding association with conspiracy theories and extremists.

Going back to Twain (or is that Disraeli?) for a moment, perhaps what he was really telling us is this – sometimes even the most earnest, seemingly honorable intentions need a second look.

Chrome Cookie Crumble

Just recently, in response to similar moves by Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers, Google announced a new Chrome update that might limit ad targeting – via users opting out of various third party cookies. The part that’s missing still is exactly how it will work on the ground – facts that Google hasn’t yet disclosed.

The internet as we know it today largely came to us with a promise. As users, you’ll see ads, and in exchange content will be free. Digital for advertisers promised data, targeting, deep analysis of where marketing dollars are going and the holy Grail – the end of wastage and better than ever ROI. But needless to say, something went wrong along the way.

With its latest Chrome announcement, Google is apparently moving with the times. Just like Apple, the big G’s priority is now also keeping our privacy and identity safe. A noble cause indeed. However, at the same time we may have forgotten how much Google already knows about us. From the moment we wake up and even when we’re asleep. Everyone who’s using Android, Chrome and other Google products in some way should know that one way or another, Google knows more about you than even Facebook does.

Privacy Window Dressing

When your entire business model is based around collecting personal data, any declaration around one part of that machine suddenly being privacy friendly is somewhat disingenuous. The Chrome update might sound to users as a great forward step towards privacy. However, make no mistake, the customer benefit is window dressing for a business and commercial advantage for Google.

With this announcement, Google is making marketers’ lives a hundred times harder, should they ever try to walk away from Google. Why? Because independent 3rd party companies using different methods of tracking and attributing will find themselves more limited in the data they can use. And – news flash – that is also the same data that keeps content free, matches relevant ad to relevant user and also tells marketers which part of their advertising money is really working.

Preserving user privacy is a noble cause, and should be standard practice for all online vendors and leaders. However, some might argue that when practiced correctly, GDPR already does exactly that. It is a set of rules and guidelines specifically designed to protect and maintain user privacy. Certainly from one perspective, Google is jumping on the GDPR bandwagon to further their own cause.

I can understand the general direction they are coming from – too many cookies and trackers on a publisher’s page can result in latency and a poor user experience. Moreover, user data is sometimes misused by unscrupulous 3rd parties. Having said that, there are industry-developed solutions that exist already to overcome those obstacles. For example, avoiding cookie overload can be achieved by using postback tracking instead of cookies to measure events on the page. Another solution might be cookie consortia such as Digitrust, which are proposing the use of one universal cookie, encrypted and safe for use – instead of one for each individual player in ad tech. Meanwhile, ads.txt has already proved itself effective in cutting out unauthorized resellers and middlemen from the ecosystem – and ads.cert promises to take that process even further.

Building a Wall

For me at least, it’s crystal clear that Google will continue to target users the ‘right’ way (once you’re logged in, they know who you are) and offer advertisers accurate targeting within their walled gardens. But by doing so, they will also kill the competition and increase the control of the duopoly.

User privacy and consent on data collection online are paramount. And true, there are 3rd parties who abuse their position. But instead of pulling out the roots of those bad actors, Google is effectively cutting down entire branches indiscriminately. Excepting the one they’re sitting on, of course.

Going back to our Twain/Disraeli saying on statistics, it seems weirdly appropriate right now that even the most well-meaning initiative could hide something darker within.

I’m not saying there’s lies, damn lies and Google – far from it. But let me just say this – ask no questions of Chrome right now. They’ll lead in one direction only.