Inside Google’s Plan to Kill the Cookie

Next year, Google will get rid of third-party cookies, the tracking tool marketers and data hogs have used to follow you around the web since 1994. To replace the cookie, Google has an offering for the world. It’s called “Privacy Sandbox,” a set of proposed changes to Chrome and Android which—according to the company—will establish a targeted advertising system that’s much better for your privacy. This could fundamentally transform how any company makes money on the internet, and just about everyone, whether they love privacy or love targeted ads, has complaints. In an exclusive interview with Gizmodo, Google broke down its pitch. It’s an unprecedented peek at the inner workings of a tech giant’s master plan.

“We are making one of the largest changes to how the Internet works at a time when people, more than ever, are relying on the free services and content that the web offers,” said Victor Wong, Google’s senior director of product management for Privacy Sandbox. “I thought it was critical that we share how we’re approaching this.”

People on every side of the issue paint Wong and his team as a band of internet bogeymen. Some players that buy, sell, and deliver ads are terrified that Privacy Sandbox will cut off data that’s critical to their businesses. Paradoxically, consumer advocates say Privacy Sandbox just lets Google and others spy on you in a different way. Meanwhile, regulators across the globe are hunting for evidence that this is all a self-dealing play that will solidify a digital advertising monopoly.

In other words, Google needs to woo organizations whose interests are diametrically opposed if Privacy Sandbox is going to work. After years of technical updates and scrapped proposals, Google is switching to a charm offensive to convince the world to get on board. Wong published a blogpost Thursday that lays out the argument: the internet needs to be free, and we need targeted ads to keep it that way, but at the same time, we need a collaborative solution that brings the data free-for-all to a close.

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Right now, third-party cookies make it easy for just about anyone to track you as you hop around different parts of the web. These cookies are blocked in Apple’s Safari and other browsers like Firefox, but not in Google Chrome, the browser of choice for the vast majority of the world. When Chrome blocks those cookies, they’re effectively dead.

Apple made a change with similar impacts that lets iPhones users block some mobile data collection with a setting called App Tracking Transparency. But Apple didn’t offer much to replace that data, which caused massive disruption in the ad business. Google, which makes its money on ads, can’t nuke data collection without an alternative—especially when the Department of Justice is already accusing the company of an advertising monopoly in a looming lawsuit.

Privacy Sandbox is that alternative. It’s complicated, but the easiest way to explain it is that it turns Chrome and Android into tracking tools. Browsers and phones running on Google infrastructure will collect data about what you do, and advertising companies can use that information without learning your identity. The underlying data never leaves your device, and no one, not even Google, ever gets to see it, according to Wong. Google swears this change won’t hurt its competition either, because the technology is compatible with outside advertising systems and because it’s free to use.

One way to look at it is Google is attempting rewrite the rules of the internet with Privacy Sandbox. It certainly demonstrates Google’s supremacy. People get upset when you start wielding that kind of power, and convincing the world that everything will be fine is a delicate act with a $500 billion industry hanging in the balance. Gizmodo’s interview with Privacy Sandbox leader Victor Wong is a first-time look at the philosophy behind a move that’s going to change the digital world.

[This interview has been edited for clarity and consistency.]

Thomas Germain: So Victor, I want to start out by asking you, how it feels to be the guy who’s running something that’s going to transform the digital economy? That’s got to be pretty weird.

Victor Wong: Well, I feel a lot of responsibility for sure. There’s a lot riding on how we implement this. I think many of us have been really lucky to be put in this position to leverage all that information and that knowledge we’ve built over time and try to build something that works for everyone in the ecosystem. It’s not just for the platforms, not just for the users, not just for the businesses out there. I mean, it’s for everyone. So we put together this statement basically breaks down our approach to four key principles.

The first is we believe it’s important to keep privacy and access to information universal. The second being that we want to ensure that there are viable alternatives for that support industry, so that there can be actual privacy for the consumers. The third is that we really felt strongly that there has to be technical protections to ensure privacy, not just some sort of code of conduct or transparency. And then, lastly, we thought it was really important that we do all this in openness and collaboration with the whole industry. So if we meet those goals, you know, I think we’ll have built a durable, private Internet. I’m hoping that this letter is kind of a call to arms.

TG: So, I’m willing to believe that you or other individual people might be working on this because you care about people’s privacy? But corporations can’t do things like that. They have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to only do things that benefit their bottom line. Can you explain how this is good for Google’s business?

VW: As a business grounded in Search, the health of the internet ecosystem from websites to apps is critical to our success. We need to provide solutions that allow publishers, advertisers, and developers to thrive, because when the web succeeds, Google succeeds. We think people want to be able to browse freely rather than browse paywalls. And people’s privacy really should be universal goods, and not some sort of luxury brand, despite what others are trying to do. For Google, it’s really important that we keep that accessibility because we’re far worse off if we fail.

So the mission of the Privacy Sandbox team writ large is to keep people’s activity private across a free and open Internet, and that supports the broader company mission, which is to make sure that information is still accessible for everyone and useful. It’s not really helpful to have one or the other, but not both.

TG: This whole thing hinges on the argument that we’re better off if content is free, but that isn’t necessarily true. People are happy to pay for some content, and there are other business models. Netflix subscriptions are pretty popular, for example, and the publishing industry was doing a lot better back in the days when all we had was contextual advertising, where you show ads based on what’s on a page, instead of who’s looking at it. You can counter that by saying targeted advertising built the Internet, so need to preserve it. But why should people believe there’s no alternative? Isn’t there a way that this could work without collecting all this information?

VW: You know, I think, first of all, it makes sense for some publications to choose subscription as a model. But what I believe is that it’s great to have as many choices as possible for consumers. So to me, what makes the web great is the diversity of voices that I can easily and freely access. So I love that I can read publications like Gizmodo without hitting a paywall and knowing that they’re able to support themselves and produce great content, right? And you’re also seeing places like Netflix adding an ad supported tier. And that’s because a lot of people can’t actually afford it. Many of us, myself included, enjoy a lot of subscription services, but it’s easy to forget that not everyone has access.

TG: This speaks to a line line that stuck out to me in your blog post, which is that part of the goal is to “enable publishers and developers to keep online content free,” which seems like part of a broader argument to get publishers on board with Privacy Sandbox when there’s been some pushback. But how is it supposed to help publishers to keep their customers’ information from them?

VW: When I really step back and think about what we’re trying to accomplish, the goal is trying to make it possible to show relevant ads without showing who the user is, and ultimately to allow advertisers to know well their ads worked without knowing who saw them. If the outcome is that users are getting relevant experiences and advertisers know that their ads are working, then publishers are benefiting, consumers are benefiting, and ad tech is benefiting. We’re aiming for a win-win for the whole ecosystem. I don’t think collecting infinite amounts of data is necessary for publishers to succeed. Certainly, you know, it doesn’t hurt them either. But, you know, we’re trying to find a way to be more efficient.

TG: Google is a company that makes all of its money by tracking people and then monetizing those insights. So I think when Google says “we’re going to keep tracking you, but we’re going to do it in a way that’s much more private, you don’t need to worry about it,” I think a lot of people think it sounds a little ridiculous. Why should people trust Google given its track record on privacy?

VW: Well, I think Google’s track record in innovation has probably been one of our hallmarks. We’ve always been able to find technological solutions for problems. And we’ve also shown ourselves, even in recent times, as being responsible when deploying those technologies. Right. I don’t think anyone can use that right now of ushering in a new technology without having seriously thought about the implications.

Our goal is to be the most trusted platform by users, and actually to have users trust their data with these services that we enable. So we’re doing what we can to protect users and ensure that they feel that they’re getting a useful Internet experience. That’s the cornerstone of our organization and I think, so far, users have continued to show faith in Google services because of that.

TG: It seems to me that Google and Apple are trying to redefine the word “privacy” to mean that no one gets to track you but us. Isn’t tracking still a problem, no matter how it’s being done?

VW: Privacy means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. We think what they really want when they think about a private Internet is being able to access great content without necessarily having to pay for privacy, or having to give up personal information like, let’s say, a persistent identifier like your email address in order to access that content. That is a win for privacy.

I think safety is also important, so they feel that their data is not going to be misused, that it’s not going to end up harming them. We’re trying to transition the Internet off of using these data points that serve as user identifiers. That’s the big paradigm change that we’re introducing. We’re not only minimizing the data used by advertisers to show the relevant ads, but also protecting users against profiling by like data brokers who may sell that individual data for other purposes. They rely on shared user identifiers like cookies and personally identifiable information, so they can all single out members of a group and read and write profiles for them. But by removing these user identifiers from how ads work, we are protecting users against that risk.

TG: Your blog post makes some subtle references to Apple. A few years ago, Apple cut off access to an iPhone ID number used to identify people for advertising, which was a big win for consumer privacy, but it threw the industry into chaos. Is Google going to get rid of the advertising ID on Android?

VW: Happy to address that. We’re focused right now very much on developing an alternative that doesn’t rely on identifiers. We’re collecting a lot of feedback about that. We’ll share more of our plans around Android on a later date.

Apple, by the way, is just one platform, and we compete with many of them, so I certainly don’t want to focus on Apple. But what differentiates our approach is we are still very much focused on enabling useful ads. That’s critical. They have generally taken more of a prohibition approach. And while I think the intentions are noble, history shows that prohibition tends to drive practices underground. We’ve seen these covert tracking methods like device identifiers that have legitimate normal purposes like IP addresses or email addresses to identify you, or fingerprinting, which uses and identifies people through a combination of signals like which fonts are downloaded to your device. When you have prohibition without actual alternatives, people then start relying on these more covert tracking methods which, from our standpoint, are worse.

TG: Let’s talk about competition. To a lot of people, the fact that Google is able to force a change like this in the first place is evidence that Google has a monopoly in the advertising market. If there was real competition, it wouldn’t be possible. Is it fair for one company to have so much power?

VW: I guess I don’t agree with the premise of the question. Privacy Sandbox is an ecosystem. We are taking a very deliberate and open approach to how we build these solutions because it’s important to design it to the needs of so many different stakeholders. If we did something that broke a bunch of different parts of the Internet, that would be bad for us, like really bad. I think our open and deliberate process and our efforts to seek out and incorporate feedback speaks to our culture and our broader business model, which is built on the success of the overall web. It’s different from other business models that are built on selling more devices or other things that don’t necessarily depend on the success of others.

I also want to highlight our agreements with the CMA, the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK. As you probably know we have legal commitments to an open, transparent process because they recognized, just like we do, that any change we make has significant implications for the overall web ecosystem.

TG: Speaking of regulatory bodies, I want to touch on the W3C, which is the main international standards organization for the web, which counts Google among its members. The W3C isn’t exactly hostile to industry, but they came out against Privacy Sandbox because, ironically, they said it’s not private enough. That had to sting.

VW: There are a lot of parts to this. We participate in many forums and W3C is just one of them, and they’re all meant to provide transparency. And the dialog forum is not too dissimilar to the United Nations. On a global scale, we’re working together with many different parties, some of which have different ideas about the best direction for the world to take. When you have multiple stakeholders with different motivations coming together, there will be disagreements.

We need standardization across different browsers and different parts of the web community so you don’t end up with a fractured Internet, essentially. So standardization is always our goal, but that position takes time. Just like anything that goes to the UN, there are going to be moments where people disagree. We think it’s important to launch these solutions and show results, to convince people of data and the actual empirical experience of users. Getting that sort of feedback is critical because it helps us improve our overall thinking, and we’ve used that kind of feedback to make changes to our proposals, and we’re going to work with those partners over the long term. But again, like we’re going to do what we think is right for the users in the web ecosystem.

TG: Earlier you mentioned fingerprinting. One of the responses we’re seeing to privacy laws, privacy changes to the Apple ecosystem, and even Privacy Sandbox is that companies are developing new ways to skirt these solutions to keep tracking people. And because third-party data is becoming harder to get, every company that has a large collection of data about its own customers is launching an advertising business. It counteracts a lot of what you’re doing.

VW: Look, we can’t dictate what others do. If we build a solution that does not deliver strong privacy outcomes for consumers, people won’t use our platform right because they don’t trust it. If we do not build a solution that works for business, they will go find alternatives. Sometimes, others’ responses align with what we’re doing, and sometimes they don’t. Our solution is to win over as much support in the broader web community, whether it’s privacy advocates or business out there, because we don’t get to just make a new rule or new system and force everyone to adopt it.

TG: I’m jumping around here, but let’s go back to Apple. Apple has been pretty successful in convincing the public that they’re the privacy company. And, you know, I’ve spilled a lot of ink pointing out the hypocrisy of that argument, and demonstrating Apple’s privacy problems. But it is true right now, if you compare iOS to Android or Safari to Chrome, that Apple is a lot more private at the moment. Did Apple force your hand?

VW: No. I think expectations for privacy have only been increasing globally in a number of areas. We announced this project in 2019, so we’ve been working on this for some time. You can really look at any part of the world and consumers’ concerns about how their data is used is going up.You’re seeing, obviously, governments and regulators also beginning to take up this question of what’s appropriate and the right way to manage that. It’s just part of the overall trend. This is the right time to tackle the problem.

TG: I think we’ve got time for one more question here. Google’s getting a lot of hate from everyone on every side of the equation. Publishers aren’t happy. Ad tech isn’t happy. Consumer advocates aren’t happy. Regulators aren’t happy. What does it feel like for you to be everybody’s bad guy?

VW: I think it’s telling us that we’re doing things right. This is exactly to the point I was making earlier. There are people saying you’ve got to do more on this side or you got to move to more on that side. And we are absolutely hearing everyone. It’s about finding this middle path where we can keep universal access to content and universal access to privacy. On the margin, you know, folks always disagree or have some preference for a slightly different route. But I think we are finding a lot of folks understanding that now. And I think as you start seeing other platforms playing out the impact of this decision, I think even more people will understand.

We’ve just chosen to take a path that we think balances it for everyone, because like I said, we’re part of a broader ecosystem. We’re trying to improve the lives of consumers and the livelihood of the entrepreneurs, the publishers, creators, and developers everywhere. You’ll never get all these different groups to ever fully agree on one strategy. But I think if everyone feels that we’ve heard how they’re impacted and how we’ve built this proposal to try to address their concerns, people will understand that we have good intentions, and we’re trying to find a way forward towards a private internet.