Google ‘protecting ad revenue’ by blocking privacy standards

Google Privacy
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Google has voted against measures aimed at preserving web users' privacy in what would have been an expansion of the powers of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C's) privacy wing.

W3C sets standards for the internet and comprises a swathe of organisations integral to its functioning, like Facebook and Cisco, among others.

The proposals, which 24 other voting members supported unanimously, involved handing the Privacy Interest Group (PING) the capacity to block any development projects that it felt undermined user privacy.

Alphabet Inc was the only member in the W3C working group that voted against the proposed charter, effectively vetoing the plans and kicking them back into development.

The likes of Microsoft, Facebook, Cisco, Apple, Oracle and Huawei all count themselves as members of the W3C.

Forrester's senior analyst Paul McKay told IT Pro that Google's decision was highly significant and motivated by self-interest.

"It is clearly moving here to protect its core targeted advertising business which makes up a large proportion of Google's revenues," McKay said.

"It's move is moving against the wider tide of increasing focus from society on protecting the privacy rights of individuals, noted by it being the only member of the W3C consortium to indicate its opposition to this step."

A Google spokesperson told IT Pro that its position has been mischaracterised and that it actually supports PING's plans to create a set of enforceable set of privacy principles that apply in web development.

Google says its objections centre on the need for PING to establish a formal privacy framework that gives developers the scope to examine the privacy risks of their features.

"We've been a proud supporter of W3C for many years and will continue to actively engage in the development of those principles," a Google spokesperson said. "PING will be far more effective once these principles are established, and we will wait to support its expansion until that happens."

The company initially said in its objection that for PING to establish itself as an "authoritarian review group" would lead to "significant unnecessary chaos" in the web development process.

Google added it would like PING to take a strong role in reviewing features, but was not comfortable investing it with such sweeping authority.

Standards such as the PING charter are developed in working groups within W3C before they are sent to the wider organisation for discussion and approval.

During the summer, PING asked a set of W3C members to approve the new privacy-centric charter that would hand the organisation stronger powers. Voting began in June, and closed on 4 August, according to Bloomberg.

Google's Chrome browser does not automatically block third-party tracking cookies by default, as the Firefox and Safari web browsers now do, instead offering its users an opt-out mechanism.

Targeted advertising, which such trackers are used for, makes up a significant chunk of the company's revenue stream. Moreover, speculation is rife that PING would act to undermine Google's business by deeming that several of its features compromise user privacy.

"This is a narrow-minded and retrograde step that is against the moving tide of consumer and business sentiment," McKay continued.

"The ability of Google to stymie progress in this fashion shows the outsized role that a few large technology firms have on the technical standards that govern the underlying design and future evolution of the internet."

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.