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Google’s Android privacy changes are anything but clear

February 17, 2022, 6:18 PM UTC

Here’s roughly all we know following Wednesday’s announcement that Google plans to change privacy protocols on its Android smartphone operating system: The updates will arrive no earlier than 2024, and advertisers will probably lose some power to track and microtarget users with ads within apps.

That’s about it.

While the Alphabet unit made waves Wednesday with its promise of Android operating system privacy tweaks in the coming years, following in the footsteps of Apple and its iOS privacy updates last year, it’s not yet remotely clear how the changes will impact users, advertisers, and Google itself.

In fact, Google’s declaration prompted far more questions than concrete answers—plus a healthy dose of skepticism among privacy advocates and tech pundits. 

Here are four of the biggest unknowns headed into Google’s Android privacy overhaul:

What, exactly, will change?

At a minimum, Google says it will “limit sharing of user data with third parties and operate without cross-app identifiers.” As it stands, advertisers can anonymously track Android users as they consume ads and navigate apps through an assigned unique ID, allowing for more accurate targeting of ads. Android users can already opt out of tracking, though many aren’t aware of this option.

However, Google hasn’t set specific updates in stone. The company did, however, suggest any changes won’t be as draconian as those instituted by Apple, which now mandates that apps must ask users whether they want their data tracked. The vast majority say “no.”

Who will have the most input?

Google executives said Wednesday that “we know this initiative needs input from across the industry in order to succeed,” specifically mentioning that it will seek feedback from developers. The collaborative approach stands in contrast to Apple, which ticked off many developers and advertisers with its unilateral decision to make privacy changes.

Regulators, however, could carry the most sway. Google went out of its way Wednesday to say it will “continue working” with the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority, which has closely monitored Google’s privacy updates to its Chrome browser. The CMA and other European regulators have amped up their oversight of Big Tech in the past few years, threatening companies like Google with massive fines and the specter of breaking up companies.

How will changes impact Meta and its peers?

Advertisers shifted billions of dollars in advertising following Apple’s privacy changes, prompting concerns of a similar hit from any Google adjustments. Facebook and Instagram parent Meta said it alone expects to lose $10 billion in ad revenue this year as a result of Apple’s updates.

Google said it’s working to find a happier medium between privacy and targeted advertising, prompting messages of support Wednesday from Meta and Snap executives. Some tech privacy advocates also noted that Google and Meta benefit from a strong business relationship built on mutual advertising interests. Ten Republican attorneys general alleged in an ongoing lawsuit that a 2018 deal between the two companies amounted to illegal price-fixing.

Why is Google making these changes now?

Therein lies a multibillion-dollar question. The most charitable reading: Google is responding to public, political, and regulatory pressure to scale back on targeted ads as consumers learn more about how closely tech companies track their online activities.

The more cynical interpretation: Google’s limitation on third-party access to consumer data could give the company more control over Android user info, squeezing out potential competitors and padding its $200 billion–plus ad business. (The U.K.’s CMA worried about exactly this scenario with Google’s Chrome updates.)

While Google’s true motivations likely lie somewhere in the middle, the next few years will show its true level of commitment to user privacy.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Who needs Arm? Nvidia added to the long list of chipmakers that scored huge revenue gains in the holiday quarter on Wednesday, spurred by huge demand meeting tight supply of semiconductors, CNBC reported. The chipmaker, based in Santa Clara, Calif., racked up $7.64 billion in quarterly revenue, up 53% from the prior year and better than analyst forecasts of $7.42 billion. Nvidia officials expect to top $8 billion in revenue during the first quarter of 2022, as supply-chain issues begin to ease. Despite the strong earnings report, shares in Nvidia fell 7% in midday trading Thursday.

Can’t catch a break. Federal transportation officials disclosed Thursday an investigation into hundreds of complaints that Tesla vehicles are inexplicably braking while in drive, the latest in a series of actions taken against the electric automaker, the Associated Press reported. Records posted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show the government has received 354 accounts in the past nine months of “phantom braking” in new Tesla Model 3 and Model Y vehicles equipped with the company’s Autopilot assisted-driving feature. While the NHTSA said none of the incidents led to injuries, the agency has opened a preliminary investigation. Tesla has issued four recalls in the past few weeks, largely for minor issues that have not caused any injuries.

Hot and ready. DoorDash’s food delivery business thrived in 2021 despite the reopening of restaurants across the country, signaling a long-term market for the service beyond the pandemic, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. The San Francisco–based company scored about $4.9 billion in revenue last year, up from $2.9 billion in 2020, when the pandemic prompted a spike in food delivery orders. DoorDash shares rose 10% in midday trading Thursday, though they remain down 57% from their all-time high set in November 2021. 

Back in business. Amazon will continue to accept Visa credit cards across its platforms after the two companies settled a standoff over processing fees, Reuters reported Thursday. While details of the détente were not disclosed, the deal marks progress between the two sides, which have made escalating threats in the past few months of breaking up their business arrangements. Amazon argued that Visa charged unnecessarily high processing fees, particularly in the U.K.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Good luck, man. A big promotion at Meta likely means you’ll see less of founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s face. The Facebook and Instagram parent announced Wednesday that Nick Clegg, a former U.K. deputy prime minister and current Meta communications and policy chief, will take a new position as the company’s president of global affairs. As The Information reported, the change likely means Clegg will become the public face of Meta, enduring all the slings and arrows thrown by the company’s many, many critics.

From the article:

Clegg’s shift appears intended to shield Zuckerberg from bearing the brunt of the public and political blowback over the company’s handling of policy issues. That’s especially important this year, as a slew of political elections—including midterm congressional races in the U.S.—could generate problematic content on its Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram apps.

“This move seems purely about protecting Mark and Sheryl [Sandberg, chief operating officer],” said Brooke Hammerling, founder of the New New Thing, a Los Angeles–based strategic consulting firm.

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BEFORE YOU GO

An invasive investment. Google might be trending in the privacy direction, but Clearview AI certainly isn’t. The Washington Post, citing a recently obtained financial presentation, reported Wednesday that the New York–based facial recognition company is bragging to investors that it could soon house a library of 100 billion facial photos by the end of 2022—the equivalent of 14 pictures for every person in the world. The company also is exploring new, even creepier biometric technologies, such as identifying people by how they walk and scanning fingerprints from a distance. All it needs is $50 million more to turn this terrifying future into reality.

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