Today, there are few words you hear more than “privacy” from big tech companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google. However, when it comes to ad blocker and privacy-focused browser vendor Ghostery, what they mean by privacy is not what you mean when you use the word.
“They’re all redefining privacy for their own benefit in a number of ways,” Ghostery CEO Jean-Paul Schmetz said in a recent statement. TechFirst Podcast.
“But obviously, I think privacy should be defined from the user’s point of view, right…that’s the only point of view that really matters.”
For example, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency defines privacy as companies that don’t share the data they collect about you with other companies without your permission…not the company that collects data about you. Google’s often delayed deprecation of third-party cookies (and more recently) will prevent cross-site tracking, which is good for privacy, but doesn’t hurt Google at all, since Google has a first-party relationship with you. Facebook’s increasingly detailed privacy settings outline the harrowing details that they (except Facebook) can see everything about you but don’t protect you from the massive social network that offers everything you have to offer.
So even with so much talk, talk, talk… we’re still naked in the dark on the web, at least when it comes to our personal data and digital behavior.
“There are data points that are leaked about 750 times a day for every American, and Europeans … 360 times a day,” Schmetz said.
In other words, that clunky legislative giant GDPR, which forces more mouse clicks (accept or reject cookies) than any other law in history, has only succeeded in halving data privacy exposure in Europe.
Interestingly, according to Schmetz, all this data collection in the name of improving ad relevance and effectiveness isn’t actually doing its job.
“If people collect data in a way that doesn’t automatically expose users’ lives, I don’t think we’re going to lose that much with advertising or machine learning,” Schmetz said. “It can really be done. We’ve proven it many times, you know, academically and so on. It’s doable. It just hasn’t been done because there’s no reason to do it. Users, governments, and anyone else There’s no real effort in that direction.”
Evidence suggests that publishers, especially news outlets, can make more money by omitting targeting ad tech layers (each taking a portion of their revenue) and enabling only contextual ads that don’t require personal information. For example, the Irish Civil Liberties Commission, quote A Norwegian news agency quadrupled its contextual advertising revenue compared to tracking-based advertising in 12 months, while a Dutch publisher increased revenue by 149%.
Google’s privacy sandbox, still in development and not yet widely released, is actually a technology designed to do just that, keeping targeted data on the device so relevant ads can be presented to the right people without having to acquire their data, expose their data, or compromise their identity.
However, it’s not clear that very specific smaller brands can make the most of contextual targeting to reach niche audiences…even if publishers do better.
Still, Schmetz said Google is actually breaking the privacy-enhancing tool by changing how extensions work in its Chrome browser.
“They have a lot of different policies, but the one you’re addressing on anti-tracking basically tells us you can block a request, but you can’t modify it,” Schmetz said. “But if you can only block…the site doesn’t work anymore. And you can’t remove the identifier like we did at Ghostery, saying ‘Look, the web is working as expected, it’s just that your ID isn’t coming through. “
Translation: The Ghostery extension on Chrome cannot modify the data flowing out of the browser that provides websites with your personal information. The extension can only block it, which means the website you want to use won’t work.
Google’s concerns are understandable: an extension that can read and modify data sent and received by the browser could, in the wrong hands, be a good tool for siphoning cash from banks or withdrawing cryptocurrency from users’ wallets.
However, Schmetz has a point:
“The truth of the matter is that Google has become a browser monopoly because you know Edge is also using Chromium as a base,” he said. “Firefox isn’t as powerful as it used to be, and all its revenue comes from Google. Google feels like they can squeeze the extension ecosystem now.”
This is a problem that Europe’s new digital marketplace bill may address, as Google dominates in multiple areas: search, email, browsers, and more. DMA could force divestitures, a potential challenge for Google for years to come. Apple isn’t immune: by owning the iPhone and iOS and the App Store, it controls what happens on its platform and who can access it.
Overall, big tech companies — Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google and Apple — are likely to face similar problems, many of them data-related.
Data is a wonderful thing, but it has its challenges, Schmetz said.
“The datasets that are being built are kind of like nuclear waste in the 21st century, right? It’s like… nuclear energy is great, but it has a waste problem, networking and machine learning are great, but it wastes all the data collected, really not should exist.”