Data privacy for all, but only those who can afford it.
Google and Apple are boldly proclaiming to be beating back the scourge of third-party tracking, but these are only small steps to make the world better for consumers.
In January 2020 Google made an important announcement about phasing out third party cookies in a Chromium blog post. This news was buried under the avalanche of the pandemic, but as the world’s biggest web engine it was a significant step towards better privacy protection on the internet.
There was a two-year deadline placed on making third party obsolete in Chrome, but the language used left a door open for a possible replacement service. On 3 March 2021, Google shut that door with a satisfying *
David Temkin, Director of Product Management, Ads Privacy and Trust, stated explicitly that Google “will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products.”
This move is in response to the erosion of trust between consumers and service providers with over two thirds of people feeling that everything they do online is being tracked by advertisers and technology firms. The figures cited from a Pew Research Center study also reveal that four out of every five Americans believe that the potential risks of data collection outweigh the benefits.
So what does this mean? Well, Chrome will be rolling out new user settings to limit invasive data collection as early as April. Google is also testing a Federated Learning of Cohorts algorithm (FLoC) that can group anonymous users together and deliver ads based on common interests.
In 2017 I met a gentleman in a lobby at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. He was from a company called Drawbridge that specialises in the kind of anonymous tracking Google is using FLoC for. He explained that third party cookies would soon become obsolete and be replaced by tracking methods that do not need to know your name to target you across all of your devices.
While there is a lot of debate in the Big Tech circles around data tracking, the only way we get value out of the AI conveniences is by telling the machines what our preferences are.
Apple is trying to explicitly warn its customers about what type of data is being collected by the services and apps they install on their iPhones, iPads and Macs. And then taking things a step further by trying to limit the amount of data that gets shipped off the device to servers by making Siri smart enough to handle some requests directly on your iPhone.
“This charade of consent has made it obvious that notice-and-choice has become meaningless. For many AI applications … it will become utterly impossible.”
These token gestures from the biggest consumer technology providers are small, but important changes that indicate an interest in the digital wellbeing of their customers. A Brookings Institution report highlights the challenges these companies face in protecting privacy while trying to advance AI capability.
Meanwhile Facebook is still fighting as hard as it can against these data tracking restrictions because charging companies to target ads at relevant consumers is the social media giant’s primary revenue stream.
My read: Online content is a pay to play market and, unfortunately, that payment is for our data. I respect Facebook for being upfront about it by opening the post boosting tools to ordinary users and not hiding everything behind the corporate curtain.
While I’m comfortable with handing over my browsing habits and search data to Google in return for a web experience that is optimised to my user profile, I have yet to encounter a personalised ad that was useful.
My targeted ad experience is dominated by the same high-priced retailers trying to sell me things I bought for cheaper somewhere else. I’m not a child, I can search for what I need on my own.
But when I’m offline I do love the convenience of asking a voice assistant to play some music while I’m cooking or find the quickest route home in peak hour traffic. Unfortunately, those users who can’t afford expensive iPhones or to pay for subscription services will have to pay for cheap devices that are subsidised by the ads that get served or the data that is tracked.
I stopped using Chrome as my browser a long time ago because I don’t like the way it slowly chokes systems to death. Will a commitment to privacy bring me back? No. But the Chromium-based browser I do use will also benefit.
Something you should know about:
Uber drivers in South Africa are fighting for their constitutional rights. I’m a fan of this move because I’ve been in conversation with too many Uber drivers who are being exploited by agencies that have corrupted what I believe are the founding philosophy of these ride sharing platforms.
You can hear my thoughts about it in the latest episode of the OverclockedZA podcast - while you’re there, please subscribe… I removed the podcast from my Substack feed because it was causing havoc with data tracking.
A number that may only interest me:
The year that Volvo plans for its car production operations to be completely carbon neutral. This begins by selling only EVs by the end of this decade, starting with the XC40 Recharge plug-in hybrid coming to SA later this year and the newly announced, jaw droppingly beautiful C40 Recharge.
A quote that seemed profound at the moment I heard/read it:
“If I get Covid, what will happen to my children?” - Anonymous
Context: The words of a single mother who has sheltered in place since the beginning of the pandemic and continues to practice physical distancing. Friday 5 March 2021 marks 365 days since South Africa recorded its first confirmed COVID-19 case and the country has since lost over 50 000 citizens to this disease.