Google is the giant of the web, a company that lives by tracking people wherever they go on the internet through its multitude of products and services.
But that is changing, as Google wants to stop tracking individual users as they browse the web. Google has previously moved to eliminate third-party cookies, which are used to target digital ads, in a decision that could upend the whole online ad industry, which has relied on these types of tracking tools for almost all its life.
The company said that its Chrome web browser would no longer use this approach by 2022, adding that it will not create or use any other tools that identify individual users for advertising purposes.
"Keeping the internet open and accessible for everyone requires all of us to do more to protect privacy — and that means an end to not only third-party cookies, but also any technology used for tracking individual people as they browse the web," said David Temkin, Google's director of product management for ads privacy and trust, in a blog post.
Google said that it would adopt application programming interfaces (APIs) to prevent tracking on an individual level, and that it wants to preserve user privacy on websites by doing things such as clustering users in interest-based groups.
Reportedly, Google has been experimenting with this approach with its Privacy Sandbox, which according to the company in a blog post, is to develop a set of open standards to fundamentally enhance privacy on the web, and to figure out the best way to conduct its business on the web, but with a less privacy-encroaching way.
The move follows the growing privacy concerns and regulatory scrutiny that target Google and some other tech giants.
The decision for not utilizing trackers, is a major shift for the technology giant, which has long been the largest digital advertising company in the world by share of spending.
Temkin said that Google believes these types of tracking methods don't "meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren't a sustainable long term investment."
But Google is Google, and the last thing in its mind is to give in or to give up.
Google said that it will still allow its advertising customers to target users across its range of services - from YouTube to Gmail and search - if the users are logged into their Google accounts.
The announcement does not affect mobile apps and mobile-app trackers. Google also said that it won't prevent prevent publishers from selling ads based on information about how a user behaved on their sites.
The plan, in Google's words, is all about finding a solution that protect both users' privacy, and lets content remain free to the the open web.
Chrome engineers have been working with the broader industry, including with web standards organization W3C, on ideas in the Sandbox that have been proposed by Google and other ad tech players.
The Cookie-less Future of the Internet
On its plan, Google shared some of its findings, showing the effectiveness of its "Federated Learning of Cohorts" proposal (FLoC).
FLoC is Google's proposed privacy-friendly substitute to cookies, and Google said that tests show promising results.
If cookies are taken out entirely without replacement, publishers can still rely on first-party data directly uploaded to a website by users to target ads. But unfortunately, not all publishers have strong bond with their users to have the ability to gather such data.
FLoC can handle this.
"Users are demanding greater privacy — including transparency, choice and control over how their data is used —and it's clear the web ecosystem needs to evolve to meet these increasing demands," said Justin Schuh, director of Chrome engineering, in a blog post.
"Some browsers have reacted to these concerns by blocking third-party cookies, but we believe this has unintended consequences that can negatively impact both users and the web ecosystem," Schuh wrote. "By undermining the business model of many ad-supported websites, blunt approaches to cookies encourage the use of opaque techniques such as fingerprinting (an invasive workaround to replace cookies), which can actually reduce user privacy and control. We believe that we as a community can, and must, do better."
Others in the competition, as well as regulators, have been watching Google's move.
The UK's competition regulator for example, has been investigating a complaint from an advertising-industry group alleging that Google's decision to remove third-party cookies from Chrome and replace them with technologies from its Privacy Sandbox would limit competition in the digital ad market.