Long time readers of this site know that once a year I make predictions, and revisit those I made the year before. But it’s not often I look back farther than one year to see if perhaps I was just a tad too early. It appears in the case of Google and personal data, I was.
In my predictions for 2015 I wagered that Google would “face existential competition from Facebook” forcing it to “connect its search and personal data to its Doubleclick asset.” This was a debatable prediction – Google had long prided itself on its privacy policies, and when it acquired DoubleClick, it canonized its stance with this line in its online policy: “We will not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent.”
That line is now gone. In its place is this: “Depending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google.”
Put another way, Google has capitulated to the power of Facebook’s online identity tsunami, and has connected all the information it has about us – our search history, usage of Google apps like Gmail, Docs, or YouTube, and our history of interaction with Google’s advertising business – so as to better target us on behalf of advertisers. Of course, this move also allows Google to better compete with Facebook, which can target Facebook users – and now even non users – across the web.
Given I predicted this would happen, I’m not that surprised it finally did – in fact, I’m surprised it took this long. To its credit, Google has made the shift by asking its customers to opt in – but the process, as described in this ProPublica piece, was pretty opaque.
Pulling back, I actually believe this represents good news for the web, and for the evolving adtech industry. For years we’ve built an open web advertising infrastructure based on anonymity, even as Facebook leveraged its native advantages based on real identity. If we can get to the point where advertisers can actually know who they are communicating with, perhaps our advertising ecosystem will evolve to a place where it adds value to consumers’ lives on a regular basis, as opposed to interrupting and annoying us all day long. When that happens, Facebook’s implicit advantage – that it knows who we are – will become commodified, and perhaps – just perhaps – the open web will once again thrive.
Update: Google reached out with a clarification – here’s their statement on the change:
Our advertising system was designed before the smartphone revolution. It offered user controls and determined ads’ relevance, but only on a per-device basis. This past June we updated our ads system, and the associated user controls, to match the way people use Google today: across many different devices. Before we launched this update, we tested it around the world with the goal of understanding how to provide users with clear choice and transparency. As a result, it is 100% optional–if users do not opt-in to these changes, their Google experience will remain unchanged. Equally important: we provided prominent user notifications about this change in easy-to-understand language as well as simple tools that let users control or delete their data. Users can access all of their account controls by visiting My Account and we’re pleased that more than a billion have done so in its first year alone.