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Google’s ‘Privacy Sandbox’ Probed by UK Antitrust Regulator

By Robert Bateman

Google is planning substantial changes to its Chrome browser that it claims will benefit user privacy.

But the U.K.’s antitrust regulator is investigating the plans over concerns that they will harm competition and further consolidate Google’s market dominance.

Google’s ongoing “Privacy Sandbox” project could lead to a radical overhaul of online advertising.

The company plans to block third-party cookies, which allow marketers to target ads based on people’s individual browsing habits, behavior and inferred characteristics. 

Google plans to gradually replace third-party cookies with application programming interfaces (APIs). The company said the plans would improve user privacy by storing personal information on-device and blocking fingerprinting.

But the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said in January that the changes “could cause advertising spend to become even more concentrated on Google’s ecosystem at the expense of its competitors.”

The changes would apply to Chrome browser and browsers based on Google’s Chromium engine.

63% Market Share

According to the web-traffic analysis website Statcounter, Chrome’s global web-browser market share was more than 63% in February. Chromium-based browsers Edge and Opera accounted for an additional 5%.

Author and competition lawyer Michelle Meagher said that the CMA’s investigation did not represent a conflict between privacy and competition law.

Photo: Rita Platts

“Google’s vision is for our privacy to be entirely protected — by them.”

Michelle Meagher, competition lawyer.

“What we’re seeing is Google attempting to use privacy as a shield or an excuse for consolidating its stranglehold over online advertising,” Meagher told Digital Privacy News. 

“Google’s vision is for our privacy to be entirely protected — by them.”

Google, which first announced Privacy Sandbox in August 2019, did not respond to a request for comment from Digital Privacy News.

Meagher argued that Google’s proposals would allow the company greater control over who can access its users’ data.

Revenue, Access Issues

“It is analogous to Apple’s claims that it restricted in-app payments and other features in the app store to protect users,” she said. “Really, this allowed Apple to control revenue and access to users.”

The CMA’s investigation, which began Jan. 7, was triggered by a complaint by campaign group Marketers for an Open Web (MOW).

“Privacy Sandbox would effectively create a Google-owned walled garden that would close down the competitive, vibrant open web.”

James Rosewell, Marketers for an Open Web.

“This is about the future of the open web and the threat that Google poses to its development,” the group’s director, James Rosewell, told Digital Privacy News.

“By launching this investigation, the CMA has recognized the seriousness of this issue.

“Privacy Sandbox would effectively create a Google-owned walled garden that would close down the competitive, vibrant open web,” Rosewell continued. “Providing more directly identifiable, personal information to Google does not protect anyone’s privacy.  

“We believe that the CMA’s investigation will confirm this and save the web for future generations.”

Not Full Agreement

However, some privacy advocates said Google’s plans were broadly positive.

“Market concentration is bad for privacy.”

Frederike Kaltheuner, London tech-policy expert.

“With more effective competition, all browsers would have blocked third-party cookies years ago,” said Ian Brown, a visiting professor at FGV Law School in Rio de Janeiro. “They are disastrous for privacy.”

“I hope the CMA will allow Google to go ahead with this overdue move, but ensure systems it develops are interoperable with other firms’ to protect competition — rather than order Google to damage user privacy by sharing their data,” he said.

Frederike Kaltheuner, an independent tech-policy expert based in London, told Digital Privacy News: “Google’s announcement has been reported as ‘Google ends personalized ads.’

“They’re not,” she said. “They’re just ending third-party tracking in Chrome. As far as I’m aware, there are no changes on mobile.”

“Generally speaking, banning third-party cookies is good and very positive for privacy,” Kaltheuner said. 

“In an ideal world, neither third parties nor Google would track you around the web in ways that are, de facto, impossible to avoid. 

“However,” she cautioned, “privacy is only one of the problems that good tech policy needs to address — and the market dominance of Google, Facebook and Amazon is another issue. 

“With more effective competition, all browsers would have blocked third-party cookies years ago.”

Ian Brown, FGV Law School, Rio de Janeiro.

“Market concentration is bad for privacy,” she said, “because it means that companies can impose their terms and conditions on consumers, who have very little choice to vote with their feet.”

Robert Bateman is a writer in Brighton, U.K.

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