Google's commitment to protecting privacy is complicated. While most people think of Google as a search engine, or Gmail, or maybe even Google Docs, the company is first, and foremost, the world's largest advertising platform.
Balancing the extremely lucrative business of tracking users with the idea that they should have control over how their personal information is used gets tricky. Primarily that's because the company is very interested in knowing exactly what its users are interested in so it can show them personalized ads.
On Wednesday, however, Google said it's committed to creating a more privacy-centric alternative to tracking them across every app and website they visit. From the company's blog post:
Today, we're announcing a multi-year initiative to build the Privacy Sandbox on Android, with the goal of introducing new, more private advertising solutions. Specifically, these solutions will limit sharing of user data with third parties and operate without cross-app identifiers, including advertising ID.
Interestingly, there's a glaring omission from Google's announcement, which is that it's noticeably light on details. Specifically, Google hasn't said what it actually plans to do, only that it's working on something. It hasn't even said how long it plans to take--just that nothing will change for at least two years.
Contrast that with Apple's approach. Apple was upfront about its plans from the beginning. Those plans included requiring developers to ask permission before they could track users, a change that was implemented in iOS 14.5 last year. That change had a dramatic effect on the digital advertising industry, especially Facebook--which depends on the ability to track conversions and attribution.
It's notable that Google hasn't said it plans to require developers to ask users for permission. The company even took aim at Apple without mentioning the iPhone maker by name:
We realize that other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers. We believe that--without first providing a privacy-preserving alternative path--such approaches can be ineffective and lead to worse outcomes for user privacy and developer businesses.
Instead, Google says its guiding principle is simply to be sure users "know their information is protected." That's an important distinction. User's personal information is going to be used, and it doesn't appear the company plans to give them the same option to block tracking altogether.
Google assumes that tracking of some form is the default. Its plan is to do it in a way that is less offensive to users, but it fully intends on giving advertisers "the tools to succeed on mobile." Apple, instead, gave users a tool to shut it all off.
That's why I find it interesting that the biggest headline in many stories is that Google's change could be another blow to Meta, Facebook's parent company. Meta lost more than $280 billion off its market cap after it said that Apple's privacy changes will cost it as much as $10 billion this year.
I'm not sure that's true, however. The biggest hit to Facebook's business is that almost every user--when given the choice--opts out of letting apps track their activity. Since Google isn't requiring developers to ask permission before tracking users, it's likely to have much less of an impact on Facebook's business.
A quick look at the company's statement in response to Google's announcement is revealing. "Encouraging to see this long-term, collaborative approach to privacy-protective personalized advertising from Google," said Graham Mudd, Facebook's VP of product marketing, in a Tweet.
It's almost as though Google can read the room well enough to know that it has to say that it's going to do something while hoping that if it drags it out long enough, people will move on and forget about it. After all, Google is notorious for announcing vague plans that point in the direction of doing something about privacy, and then not actually doing much of anything.
For example, back in 2019, it said it would phase out third-party cookies in Google Chrome, the world's most popular web browser. It still hasn't happened. It turns out, Google's track record on privacy isn't just complicated, it might be its most glaring problem of all.