Google is in an interesting position when it comes to making the internet respect your privacy. It controls the world's largest advertising platform, the most used search engine, and the most popular web browser. Together, that means Google has more influence over how your data is gathered and tracked online than any other company.
It's significant then that over the past few years, Google has joined the effort to eliminate the worst offender when it comes to tracking, third-party cookies. Those are the little pieces of code websites use to track your activity across other sites and apps.
Cookies, in and of themselves, aren't necessarily bad. They serve valuable purposes like keeping you logged in to sites you use regularly. It's just that they are also used for purposes they were never intended for, like tracking everything you do online.
In 2020, Google announced that Chrome would block third-party cookies by default--something almost every other browser already does. Since that time, Google has been trying to figure out an alternative that will still allow advertisers to target users without invading their privacy.
Google's solution, known as FLoC, analyzes web activity in Chrome and assigns the user to a cohort. Advertisers can then target ads at those groups as opposed to individual users. Google argues that the method is privacy-protecting since individual users can't be identified. In theory, that sounds great, right?
Except, basically, no one else thinks it's a good idea. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example, calls it a "terrible idea." Advertisers aren't fans either. Amazon has said it will block FLoC from working on any of its sites.
That explains why last week, Google said it will delay the rollout of FLoC, and the blocking of third-party cookies, until 2023.
Look, there's no question that Google, should it decide to, could make the internet respect your privacy. It could simply turn off third-party cookies in Chrome--just flip a switch and make them go away for good.
The cynical take is that Google is dragging this out because it's addicted to your data and wants to protect its business. The truth, however, is that's only partially true. In fact, I think you can make the case the truth is actually worse. Google doesn't even need that data.
While Google could technically make the internet respect your privacy, the problem is that doing so would give it an enormous advantage over every other advertising network and platform. Google collects massive amounts of first-party data on its users, meaning that it is far less dependent on third-party tracking.
Besides, Google's most profitable advertising platform is search. Google doesn't have to do any third-party tracking to know what you search for since you literally type what you're looking for into its website. All it has to do is show you ads at the top of the search engine results page.
Blocking third-party tracking altogether would certainly affect Google's business, but would have a far greater impact on the rest of the digital advertising industry. As a result, Google is in an almost impossible situation, but not for the reason it might seem.
Eliminating third-party cookies seems like the best possible outcome for Google because it would force advertisers to become even more dependent on Google. In the long run, it would give Google even more control over digital advertising, which you might think would be a good thing for the company.
Except, considering the antitrust pressure Google is facing, the last thing it wants to do is anything that makes it look like the company is becoming more dominant. Google can't cut off the rest of the industry--not because it's being charitable, but because to do so would put its entire business at risk.
If you think Google is facing scrutiny now, imagine what would happen if it became even more dominant. It's hard to see a scenario where it wouldn't be broken apart by regulators, which might be better for your privacy but would definitely be bad for Google. Once again, when faced with a decision between protecting user privacy and protecting its own business, Google has chosen the latter.