Here’s What Google Didn’t Say In Its Promises About Our Privacy

Here’s What Google Didn’t Say In Its Promises About Our Privacy
Photo: Alastair Pike, Getty Images
To sign up for our daily newsletter covering the latest news, features and reviews, head HERE. For a running feed of all our stories, follow us on Twitter HERE. Or you can bookmark the Gizmodo Australia homepage to visit whenever you need a news fix.

Roughly a month after being hit with a pretty damning antitrust suit led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Google issued its response on Sunday via a public blog post tackling some of the more “misleading” allegations.

This is pretty out of character for Google, which has, until now, been pretty private with its response to any antitrust investigations — both in communications with the press and with its own rank and file employees. Even the blog post itself is pretty myopic, narrowly focusing on a handful of charges from the Texas case without addressing any allegations from, say, the dozens of other states or the Department of Justice, among a few others.

“AG Paxton tries to paint Google’s involvement in [the adtech] industry as nefarious. The opposite is true,” wrote Google’s Economic Policy Director Adam Cohen.

“Unlike some B2B companies in this space, a consumer internet company like Google has an incentive to maintain a positive user experience and a sustainable internet that works for all — consumers, advertisers and publishers.”

Cohen then goes on to describe some of the specific points that Paxton got wrong. A good chunk of these are related to the way the suit refers to Google’s ongoing attempts to quash competition that took place via a wonky adtech practice known as “header bidding,” which you can read all about here. But some of Cohen’s more egregious attempts at debunking the AG deserved some debunking themselves. Here are the two biggest doozies:

As we’ve built our ad tech products, we have given people granular controls over how their information is used to personalise ads and limited the sharing of personal data to safeguard people’s privacy.

On paper, Cohen has a point. Google has spent the past year rolling out controls across its myriad properties — even overhauling core parts of its flagship browser — for the sake of its users’ privacy. What the blog conveniently leaves out is that just about every one of these updates seem to suffer the same flaw: They’re impossible to understand, meaning just about every consumer will find them impossible to put into practice.

One of the many, many (many) suits facing the company actually proved this. Back in May, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich spearheaded an investigation into the company’s privacy practices that included some (initially redacted) comms from Google employees who were just as confused as the people who use its products.

And then there’s this nugget from Cohen:

The ad tech industry is incredibly crowded and competitive. […] We compete with household names like Adobe, Amazon, AT&T, Comcast, Facebook, Oracle, Twitter and Verizon.

Again, Cohen does have a point here — the adtech ecosystem is ridiculously crowded. Ridiculously. Google’s been reminding us of this exact point for years.

But opportunity isn’t the same thing as choice. Google owns the most popular video streaming service and search engine in the country by a massive margin. In the U.S., for example, Google’s flagship search engine is estimated to control a little over 90% of the the total search engine market share. YouYube, meanwhile, saw streaming numbers last year that even surpassed rivals like Netflix.

In other words, Google has tons of people with tons of eyeballs across its properties every second of every day. Because online advertising is largely a numbers game where marketers want to spend the least amount of money to reach the most people possible, there’s an ugly, unwritten requirement in the ad industry that results in people pouring their ad budgets into Google’s systems even if they have to hold their noses while doing so.

In part because adtech systems on the whole are mind-numbingly convoluted, and in part because Google’s pretty tight-lipped about the financial specifics about its own ad biz, it’s pretty tricky to estimate how strong its chokehold is. One recent study that came out of the ISBA — an adtech trade association in the UK — alleged that close to 30 cents ($0.39) of every ad dollar spent online could end up in Google’s pockets. And we know that even though players like Amazon are quickly encroaching on Google’s turf, the so-called Google-Facebook duopoly still devours more than 60% of the ad dollars spent online.

What’s ironic about Cohen’s statement is that the exact names he alleges compete with Google’s adtech business, considering what we’ve seen throughout the past year. Last year, Adobe downgraded its so-called Advertising Cloud so significantly that one analyst called the move Adobe’s way of “effectively shutting up shop.” Last year we also saw reports that AT&T was strongly considering selling off its standalone adtech biz, Xandr, which had spent the past few years struggling to get a competitive foothold in the wacky world of digital ads.

Verizon closed shop on its standalone Oath ad server business last year as part of a company-wide reshuffle that resulted in close to 800 Verizon Media employees being laid off. And Twitter’s ad revenue plummeted so badly last year that it…well, made a few questionable choices on the product end.

Google’s core arguments on the privacy and power front are actually really similar in one specific way: They only ring true if you don’t actually question Google’s claims.

If you accept Google’s definitions of squishy terms like “privacy” or “competition” or even words like “misleading,” you’re accepting the status quo that Google defined for itself as something universal. It’s not. The way you or I define “privacy,” or that lawyers and economists define “competition” is bound to show a bit of variation because, well, these phrases don’t actually mean much on their own. But if we’re going to let Google extoll its virtues via blog post, we should at least ask them to define what those virtues even are.