Google's Efforts To Be Better About Your Privacy, Now Attacked As An Antitrust Violation

from the wait,-what? dept

We've talked a lot in the past about how almost no one seems to actually understand privacy, and that leads to a lot of bad policy-making, including policy-making that impacts the 1st Amendment and other concepts that we hold sacred. Sometimes, it creates truly bizarre scenarios, like the arguments being made by Texas's Attorney General in the latest amended antitrust complaint against Google.

As you'll likely recall, back in December, Texas's Attorney General Ken Paxton -- along with nine other states -- filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google. There were some bits in the laws that suggested some potentially serious claims, but the key pars were heavily redacted. Of the non-redacted parts there were really embarrassing mistakes, including claiming that Facebook allowing WhatsApp users to backup their accounts to Google Drive was giving Google a "backdoor" into WhatsApp communications.

That makes the latest amended complaint even more bizarre. It attacks Google for doing more to protect its users' privacy. As you remember, a couple weeks ago, Google noted that as it got rid of 3rd party cookies in Chrome, it wasn't going to replace it with some other form of tracking. This is, clearly, good for privacy. It is, also, good for Google, since it's better positioned to weather a changing ad market that doesn't rely on 3rd party cookies tracking you everywhere you go.

So the new amended complaint takes a move that is clearly good for everyone's privacy and whines that this is an antitrust violation.

Google’s new scheme is, in essence, to wall off the entire portion of the internet that consumers access through Google’s Chrome browser. By the end of 2022, Google plans to modify Chrome to block publishers and advertisers from using the type of cookies they rely on to track users and target ads. Then, Google, through Chrome, will offer publishers and advertisers new and alternative tracking mechanisms outlined in a set of proposals that Google has dubbed Privacy Sandbox. Overall, the changes are anticompetitive because they raise barriers to entry and exclude competition in the exchange and ad buying tool markets, which will further expand the already dominant market power of Google’s advertising businesses.

Google’s new scheme is anticompetitive because it coerces advertisers to shift spend from smaller media properties like The Dallas Morning News to large dominant properties like Google’s. Chrome is set to disable the primary cookie-tracking technology almost all non-Google publishers currently use to track users and target ads. A small advertiser like a local car dealership will no longer be able to use cookies to advertise across The Dallas Morning News and The Austin Chronicle. But the same advertiser will be able to continue tracking and targeting ads across Google Search, YouTube, and Gmail—amongst the largest sites in the world—because Google relies on a different type of cookie (which Chrome will not block) and alternative tracking technologies to offer such cross-site tracking to advertisers. By blocking the type of cookies publishers like The Dallas Morning News currently use to sell ads, but not blocking the other technologies that Google relies on for cross-site tracking, Google’s plan will pressure advertisers to shift to Google money otherwise spent on smaller publishers.

No good deed goes unpunished. Yes, it is true that Google's move will undoubtedly harm companies that rely on intrusive 3rd party cookies. But that's good for privacy. And it's funny that this is coming in the very same antitrust lawsuit that whines that one of Google's antitrust problems is that it snoops on WhatsAspp (when it doesn't). Here, Google is clearly taking a stand -- the same stand that Mozilla and Apple took earlier -- against creepy and problematic 3rd party cookies, and it gets spun by Texas's AG as an attack on "small advertisers."

I'm kind of curious what the AGs bringing this lawsuit are aiming for here. Yes, I get that the entire point is just to attack Google, but if they win, do they want to require Google to be worse about privacy? Because that's ridiculous.

The complaint does try to argue that Google's Privacy Sandbox isn't really about privacy, and that it's all a "ruse." It even (selectively) quotes an old EFF blog post that rightly calls out some of the problems with the Privacy Sandbox approach. But the EFF blog post is not -- as the amended complaint implies -- suggesting that Google should allow more 3rd party cookie tracking. It's just calling out some of the other problems of the Privacy Sandbox. No one is arguing that Privacy Sandbox is a panacea for privacy issues. And no one is arguing that Google is magically all "good" for online privacy -- indeed there are plenty of legitimate reasons to be concerned about Google's impact on privacy. But the announcement it made recently was, quite clearly, a step in the right direction for privacy, and while it may make life difficult for intrusive advertisers who rely on other methods of advertising, that's really on those advertisers to be better.

There are other things in these lawsuits that may be damning for Google and its practices. I'm still really interested in learning about the redacted sections, which might reveal actual bad practices. But, it's not encouraging at all that Texas's AG is taking a step towards better protection of user privacy as some sort of evidence of nefariousness -- and doing so in the very same complaint arguing that part of the reason Google violates antitrust laws is that it "violates the privacy" of Android users (via the WhatsApp backup feature).

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Filed Under: 3rd party cookies, advertising, antitrust, ken paxton, privacy, privacy sandbox, texas, tracking
Companies: google

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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 16 Mar 2021 @ 12:56pm

    A punching bag can do no right

    This was always first and foremost a PR stunt for the gullible, but for Google to take a step that will help customer privacy only to have that used against them just highlights this even more. There are certainly valid reasons to be concerned and critical of Google but like similar efforts this was never about helping or protecting the public, it's merely about the spectacle.

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