The Google Garden: There Is A Better Way

Credit: “The Google Book,” authored and illustrated by V.C. Vickers.

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by James Rosewell, founder and CEO at 51Degrees.

“Upon the uncharted Island of Imagination in the middle of the Lake of Let’s-Pretend lives the ghastly Google and his retinue of gorgeous Google birds…” – The Strand

James Rosewell headshotThese words were written in 1913 by The Strand reviewing “The Google Book,” a fanciful children’s book authored and illustrated by V.C. Vickers, a former governor of the Bank of England. 

Today, we see many “birds” within our digital Google garden, ahem, Privacy Sandbox, all of which suffer, I would argue, from industry-wide bounded rationality. The decisions we make are limited by the information available to us and our mental capabilities – and we are not being given all of the information.

The ultimate goal is to improve digital privacy. But we have yet to review options and alternatives beyond very specific, almost unfriendly technical definitions of “privacy” laid out by the web browsers.

For example, why is it credible to make it a crime to transfer information between a publisher and its supply chain vendors, but okay for so-called “first party sets” to allow transfers between two different domains when owned by the same corporate conglomerate?

We have yet to see a proposal for an elegant solution that actually improves people’s privacy while also supporting a competitive marketplace, one that embraces the multiple disciplines of law, economics and social responsibility.

Recent proposals advanced by those other than Google or Apple call for a central authority to operate their solutions, don’t consider the needs of advertisers and publishers equally, creating an opportunity for abuse and yet another power imbalance. In my view, any solution that adds complexity, cost, and centralizes control is, well, for the birds.

Credit: “The Google Book,” authored and illustrated by V.C. Vickers.

Bias at the W3C

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is meant to be a neutral organization that defines web standards via consensus. Yet the prevailing narrative within the W3C naively assumes that smaller publishers can operate and grow their businesses without access to the interoperable data needed to work with supply chain vendors.

The underlying assumption is that people can trust internet gatekeepers and no one else. It’s no wonder then, that the W3C, which was chosen by Google as the venue to debate Privacy Sandbox, openly discriminates against independent organizations that help these small publishers.

For example, the W3C Security and Privacy questionnaire discriminates between first and third parties by defining “privacy protection” regardless of the scale or sensitivity of the data collected. From a consumer perspective, the harm perpetrated by a first party is the same as a third party. Yet inexplicably, the document actively champions restricting web features that enable smaller players to work with others to compete with larger, dominant platforms.

When some , including myself, openly questioned this logic, and the implications to competition as violating the W3C’s existing antitrust guidance, the chairs of the W3C Technical Architecture Group failed to respond with reasoned justifications and instead accused me of acting in bad faith. 

Credit: “The Google Book,” authored and illustrated by V.C. Vickers.The W3C’s antitrust policies have not yet been applied to the proposals that advance the interests of larger organizations over independent ones, and W3C management remains silent to this day. When the supposed impartial facilitator is openly biased, there’s no reason not to be concerned about the future of the open web.

It’s worth noting that the same arguments presented to the W3C when reviewed by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) resulted in an official investigation into the additional threats Privacy Sandbox poses to open market competition. 

Competition and Markets Authority

The CMA’s influential July 2020 report on the impact that internet gatekeepers have on digital market competition suggested remedies that include mandating a common browser identifier, preventing web browsers from self-preferencing their services and ensuring rivals have a level playing field to participate in digital markets.

Google should be halted from progressing the proposals within Privacy Sandbox until after the new legislation that restores competitive digital markets comes into effect. Marketers for an Open Web (MOW), an organisation I formed with other business leaders, is calling for immediate action to prevent Google from making the current situation worse.

”Pumping the brakes” will help ensure that all the remedies and social concerns are considered, and not just those dictated by Google and Apple.

After all, how is anyone’s privacy improved by requiring more personal information to be surrendered more often to a smaller number of trillion-dollar companies? This Android screenshot [click here to see it] is just one example of how Google ties multiple products together – products that should not require the surrender of our most personal data in order to function.

Take a step back

Advertisers, publishers nor their suppliers have any interest in breaking laws or annoying people. It’s not good business to do so.

In fact, it was Google that was hit with the largest fine in Europe for breaches of data protection laws.

So, rather than picking from a variety of poor solutions today, consider a wider possibility. By combining regulation, law, economics and social responsibility, we can design a decentralized solution to support the open web.

The choices we make today will govern the web for decades. Isn’t it best that these decisions support smaller publishers and new startups?

But here’s the catch: to do so will require an unbound mind that is open to thinking beyond the solutions being proposed today.

[Acknowledgement: I’m grateful to The Google Book Project for providing the beautiful images and quotes included in this article. For those who would like their own copy of The Google Book, it’s available on Etsy … unless, perhaps, there isn’t a resolution to this open issue on GitHub related to Apple’s Private Click Measurement and the inability for multiple small businesses to get proper attribution while still banding together under a single domain.]

Credit: “The Google Book,” authored and illustrated by V.C. Vickers.

Follow James Rosewell (@jwrosewell), 51Degrees (@51Degreesmobi) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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1 Comment

  1. TheBadWolf

    First and foremost, the power the tech giants have in any and every aspect of our lives is very worrying and in some cases is down right scary. I’m not happy that a handful of people in the silicon valley determine what’s right, what’s wrong and tell us how to live.

    However, let’s be honest here – it’s about the money. Google is exploiting its position as the undisputed leader and everyone else is screaming about it because Google is about to close one of the ways others track you online.

    Does anyone care about the actual privacy? No. The 3rd party cookies is a good concept greatly misused by what can best be described as the industry of stalking. If in real life venues that you visited stuck a sticker on you for all to see I imagine you’d not be particularly happy. Why do you feel it is then appropriate to do the same on the Internet? There’s a reason stalking is illegal and stalking people online should also be illegal.

    I mean I know why – Ad tech companies buy your data to say with even more certainty who’s browsing. Don’t get me wrong, I used 51D detector in the past and I like how fast and accurate it is, I’m merely stating you have a stake in taking the side of the smaller Ad tech providers.

    And while you bash Google for implementing what I understand is a mechanism to pool people into a wider and a narrower groups for a more general targeting, none of the opposition offers any suggestions as to what the alternative is. They all pretty much just shift the things around without solving the privacy issue because that’s what their businesses are geared to do.

    The GDPR and subsequent consent popups were a real eye opener! It made me wonder why all these domains needed to know that I’ve visited a simple weather website or how long I spent reading a certain article. And from what I understand this can be used to fingerprint and profile individuals. While I can sort of see how this can be beneficial to the website itself if it can better understand and connect with their users, I do not understand why this data is sold and shared between some questionable 3rd parties. How are they going to use my data? Why do they feel it’s appropriate to identify me to the point they could actually match my profile to a name and address?

    Besides, it’s not the end of the world for the independent Ad tech, there’s still JavaScript to identify and fingerprint. In this instance I actually support Google’s initiative to reduce the impact of online Ad tech stalking. And to your point of Google linking data – you can actually opt out or use the alternatives. You can buy a mobile phone with limited to no tracking or get a distro of Android with Google stuff cut out. You can use a different mail service and a different search engine. You have a choice. Not really possible or easy with the Ad tech.