How's this for a trend? First  Uber, then Facebook. Now, Google.

Because when a giant tech company develops a reputation for violating users' trust or not respecting their privacy, you can rest assured it will eventually spin 180 degrees, and insist that it now wants to become a paragon of the virtues it was once accused of spurning.

We saw it after Travis Kalanick left Uber, when, in advance of its initial public offering, the company tried to make building trust with users its number-one priority. 

We saw it earlier this year, when Mark Zuckerberg announced, first via a 3,000-word Facebook post, that he wanted to lead Facebook toward prioritizing privacy, security, and small-group communication.

Now, we're seeing it with Google. And some people are saying there's a really big catch.

In a series of sweeping announcements on Tuesday, Google announced it's unveiling new privacy tools that would, if they lived up to the hype, let users restrict how companies track their online activities and compile and sell their personal data.

"We think privacy is for everyone -- not just for the few. We want to do more to stay ahead of constantly evolving user expectations," Google CEO Sundar Pichai said.

Among the specific items on the list (aptly summarized by the New York Times):

  • letting users search and navigate on Google Maps in "incognito mode";
  • allowing them to watch YouTube videos and search for information on Google in the same "incognito mode";
  • giving users an option to automatically delete their web or app activity after either three months or 18 months;
  • making it easier for users to delete information they've shared, perhaps inadvertently, like location data in maps (less than a year ago, Google was accused of tracking people's location data in Maps, even when they explicitly chose not to allow that);
  • giving users on Android a way to limit how much location data they share with app providers; and
  • perhaps the biggest item on the list, letting users limit the use of tracking cookies on Chrome, which could completely undermine the creepiest parts of the digital advertising model, where your most minor online behaviors become fodder for more targeted ads. 

It all sounds pretty good, right?

But some analysts looking at this say Google is playing a fascinatingly effective game of looking like it's giving customers useful privacy controls -- but doing so in a way that not only doesn't hurt Google's business, but actually hurts its smaller competitors.

"I suspect they saw the writing on the wall," Fatemeh Khatibloo, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester told the Times. " I don't think this affects their business at all. So why shouldn't they do these things to give the impression of more privacy?"

I wrote about one such example earlier this week, in advance of the Google Developer Conference. The restrictions on tracking cookies, for example, could decimate some of Google's smaller competitors--in an industry that was estimated to be worth $129 billion this year.

But the changes -- which Google reportedly worked on for six years -- are not expected to have any significant effect at all on Google's own advertising business -- which was a $30.7 billion revenue stream for the company (link is a .pdf) in the first three months of this year, according to data released by Google's parent company, Alphabet, last month.

That's down hard from the same quarter a year ago however -- just over $5 billion, in fact. And so cynics might observe that it's a good time for Google to unveil feature changes that could suck ad dollars away from its smaller competitors and instead wind up in Google's coffers.

Published on: May 11, 2019
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