Google and its parent Alphabet have become embroiled in so many legal disputes with regulators pertaining to the company's handling of private user data, it's become difficult to keep track. Just yesterday, the public learned about a federal investigation into Google's "Project Nightingale" (a deal with a large hospital group to build out a new cloud-storage system for patient's sensitive medical data, effectively placing that extremely valuable data in Google's hands).
And back in September, Ireland's data regulator launched an investigation into whether Google's online advertising exchange illegally taps into sensitive personal information about Internet users. That investigation stemmed from a complaint made by an executive at a much-smaller rival search company called Brave.
In response to all this scrutiny, Google has repeatedly tweaked its practices (sometimes by allowing users access to its data cache with the ability to delete data they don't want Google to have) and announced big changes to how it handles data. And on Thursday, Google announced a major change to its digital advertising business that critics complained would give Google far more power in the industry.
Google said it made the change after the Irish data regulator launched an investigation into whether the company illegally tapped into sensitive personal information, like their race, health and political leanings.
According to the FT, Google allows advertisers bidding on space to see the categories of web pages or apps where the ads will be displayed. Categories range from broad things like cars and music, to more specific categories like substance abuse or kosher food. But come February, Google will end this practice, limiting the insights that advertisers have while they're participating in the auctions.
This decision will "help avoid the risk that any participant in our auctions is able to associate individual ad identifiers with Google's contextual content categories," the company said.
Translation: Google wants to make sure that any data it allows clients can't be used to identify a specific individual.
Johnny Ryan is the executive at Brave who filed the complain against Google with the Irish regulators, and he's quoted in the FT criticizing Google's decision as "cosmetic", and claiming that it won't do much to help protect user privacy.
Johnny Ryan, chief policy officer at Brave, said Google’s change was not sufficient to protect the privacy of users. "It appears Google will still broadcast bid requests that contain things like URL, approximate location and data to link these over time, to countless companies, billions of times a day. These data contain personal and special category data so this appears to be a cosmetic change," he said.
He elaborated on this criticism in a series of tweets (and for those who are unfamiliar with the argot of the digital advertising industry, "RTB" stands for "Real-Time Bidding").
As I told The Financial Times @FT, Google removing categories from RTB bid requests does not stop the biggest data breach in history.— Johnny Ryan (@johnnyryan) November 14, 2019
Google RTB will still broadcast what you are reading, watching, or listening to, and where you are, to countless companieshttps://t.co/9zd4E38UxD pic.twitter.com/AVtITmvVwr
Remember, the original RTB complaint from September 2018 that triggered @DPCIreland's statutory inquiry into Google's RTB business did not go into detail on content categories. https://t.co/XpGeDmGIJN— Johnny Ryan (@johnnyryan) November 14, 2019
In fact, I only submitted evidence about (IAB and Google) content categories in late January 2019. https://t.co/RnqSAgnY9G— Johnny Ryan (@johnnyryan) November 14, 2019
Front page news.— Johnny Ryan (@johnnyryan) November 14, 2019
Google's announcement today vindicates the work of I, @Brave, @RaviNa1k, @jimkillock, @mikarv, @szymielewicz and our many allies in 16 European countries.
But it does not fix to the problem. pic.twitter.com/9LQuT7jPvQ
Bingo! https://t.co/tirqbZ0RQv— Johnny Ryan (@johnnyryan) November 14, 2019
Ryan isn't the only critic. Jason Kint, chief executive officer of Digital Content Next, a lobbying group for online publishers, said Google's decision to cut off access to this valuable "third party" data will make "first party" data - i.e. data users enter directly into websites (like a Google search)- more valuable. That benefits nobody, except Google.
"This decision will at least enhance value of first-party data and Google Search is the most dominant place for first party data, so it will hurt everyone except Google," he said.
Big brands and ad agencies have long been alarmed over the control Google and other big tech groups hold over customer data and the power this gives them as a channel for advertising.
While the revisions reflect the increasing regulatory scrutiny of data transfers, senior figures suspect one side effect will be tightening Google's grip over data, and potentially driving more business to its search advertising arm. One advertising chief executive said a restriction of data would simply mean "more power to Google."
And that's just it: Google is doing the bare minimum to meet regulators' demands, while ensuring that it will become an increasingly dominant player in the digital advertising space, as Google, Facebook and now Amazon play a global game of real-life "Monopoly".