Editorial: Google renounces web tracking, but protecting privacy will take much more

The Google logo against a black background.
Google says it won’t develop new ways to follow individual users across the internet, a step in the right direction.
(Associated Press)

The commercial internet developed with so little regard for privacy, tech companies have been able to turn personal data into hefty profits, raising billions of dollars off their ability to collect and sell information about anyone who strayed within hailing distance of their software. This week, Google announced a step in the right direction — but not a giant step, nor one that will stop Google from continuing to hoover up immense amounts of personal data.

At issue is how online companies track internet users as they browse from site to site online, typically through snippets of code known as cookies. The most noxious version, “third-party” cookies, is the web equivalent of a company posting sentinels across the internet to surveil what you do even when you’re on other companies’ sites.

Google declared in a blog post Wednesday that it would no longer use or support third-party cookies, nor would it create or use any other technology that tracks individual users across the web. Given that Google is a main supplier of online advertising technology, its change in approach will ripple far and wide.


That’s welcome news, albeit with caveats galore. As Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted, third-party cookies were already on the retreat, with Apple and other makers of popular web browsers moving to block them. Meanwhile, Google, Facebook and other Big Tech companies continue to collect personal information in abundance from people who use their sites and services through first-party cookies and similar techniques.

The concerns about personal data collection are the same whether it’s being collected through first-party or third-party techniques, said Michelle Richardson of the Center for Democracy and Technology: Companies may use the information to discriminate among internet users, offering different goods, services and even prices to different users.

Instead of helping advertisers track individuals, Google says, it is refining a technology that assigns users anonymously to large groups with common interests. That’s an improvement, even though it too may be vulnerable to abuse. But why do any form of tracking at all? Privacy advocates say pitches can be targeted effectively by basing them on where the user is at the moment (contextual advertising), not where he or she has roamed previously online (behavioral advertising).

Ultimately, legislators are going to have to enact protections giving people far more control over whether and how personal information is used online. Ideally the federal government will set a strong floor under online privacy protections, but until then it will be up to state lawmakers or voters to act, as this state has done with its groundbreaking online privacy laws. It’s good to see Google move the ball forward, but there’s much further to go.