Google to Stop Selling Ads Based on Your Specific Web Browsing

Citing privacy concerns, Google says it won’t use technologies that track individuals across multiple websites.

Google plans to stop selling ads based on individuals’ browsing across multiple websites, a change that could hasten upheaval in the digital advertising industry.

The Alphabet Inc. company said Wednesday that it plans next year to stop using or investing in tracking technologies that uniquely identify web users as they move from site to site across the internet.

The decision, coming from the world’s biggest digital advertising company, could help push the industry away from the use of such individualized tracking, which has come under increasing criticism from privacy advocates and faces scrutiny from regulators.

Google’s heft means the change could reshape the digital ad business, where many companies rely on tracking individuals to target their ads, measure the ads’ effectiveness and stop fraud. Google accounted for 52% of last year’s global digital ad spending of $292 billion, according to Jounce Media, a digital ad consultancy.

About 40% of the money that flows from advertisers to publishers on the open internet—meaning digital advertising outside of closed systems such as Google Search, YouTube or Facebook—goes through Google’s ad buying tools, according to Jounce.

“If digital advertising doesn’t evolve to address the growing concerns people have about their privacy and how their personal identity is being used, we risk the future of the free and open web,” David Temkin, the Google product manager leading the change, said in a blog post Wednesday.

Google had already announced last year that in 2022 it would remove the most widely used such tracking technology, called third-party cookies. But now the company is saying it won’t build alternative tracking technologies, or use those being developed by other entities, for its own ad buying tools to replace third-party cookies.

Instead, Google says it will use new technologies it has been developing with others in what it calls a “privacy sandbox” to target ads without collecting information about individuals from multiple websites. One such technology analyzes users’ browsing habits on their devices, and allows advertisers to target aggregated groups of users with similar interests, or “cohorts,” rather than individual users. Google said in January that it plans to begin open testing of ad buying using that technology in the second quarter.

Google’s planned change elicited some concerns in the ad world. At the moment, advertisers use the data harvested from people’s browsing across the web to figure out whom to serve ads to, and whether a targeted user went on to buy the advertised product. After Google’s change, advertisers won’t be able to get as detailed a picture of either. Still, other ad industry executives said the change is good for consumers and expressed hope that Google’s new targeting technologies will still help brands achieve their goals in online marketing.

Google’s latest move and the concern about its potential implications underscore tension in the digital ad industry between protecting user privacy and promoting competition. Smaller digital-ad companies that use cross-site tracking have accused Google and Apple Inc. of using privacy as a pretext for changes that hurt competitors.

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