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Google to overhaul ad tracking on Android phones used by billions

The tech giant wants to make Android more private, but the move will raise antitrust concerns.

A statue of Google’s Android mascot is displayed at the company’s campus last month. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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SAN FRANCISCO — Google announced it will begin the process of getting rid of long-standing ad trackers on its Android operating system, upending how advertising and data-collection work on phones and tablets used by more than 2.5 billion people around the world.

Right now, Google assigns special IDs to each Android device, allowing advertisers to build profiles of what people do on their phones and serve them highly targeted ads. Google will begin testing alternatives to those IDs this year and eventually remove them completely, the company said in a Wednesday blog post.

Google said the changes will improve privacy for Android users, limiting the massive amounts of data that app developers collect from people using the platform. But the move also could give Google even more power over digital advertising, and is likely to deepen concerns regulators have already expressed about the company’s competitive practices. Google is the most dominant digital advertising company in the world, owning many of the tools advertisers use to reach people online, as well as selling billions of dollars in ad space on search results and on YouTube videos. It made $61 billion in advertising revenue in the fourth quarter of 2021 alone.

“Google is between a rock and a hard place," said Ari Paparo a long-time advertising tech executive who ran advertising software company Beeswax before its 2020 sale to Comcast. Google has to balance the demands of consumers, advertisers, privacy advocates and regulators, all at the same time, he said.

Google is totally changing how ads track people around the Internet. Here’s what you need to know.

The announcement comes over a year after Apple began blocking trackers on its own operating system, which runs on its iPhones, giving customers more tools to limit the data they share with app developers. The move that sent shock waves through the ad world and led to Facebook — which makes much of its money on mobile ads targeted with data it collects from users — to say the changes would cost it $10 billion in revenue this year. Google, which is less reliant on mobile data, wasn’t as affected by the changes, and may even have benefited from advertisers moving their money from Facebook to search and YouTube ads.

Google contrasted its plan with Apple’s, saying it would make the changes over the next two years, working closely with app developers and the advertising industry to craft new ways of targeting ads and measuring their effectiveness before making any drastic changes.

“We realize that other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers,” said Anthony Chavez, vice president of product management for Android security and privacy, in the blog post. “We believe that without first providing a privacy-preserving alternative path such approaches can be ineffective and lead to worse outcomes for user privacy and developer businesses.”

Google has been undergoing a similar process with its Chrome Web browser, for which it is working to get rid of third-party cookies, the little bits of code that are used to track people around the Internet and send them targeted ads. That process has already been controversial, with Google extending its timeline after intense opposition from the advertising world. Last month, it scrapped its original proposal to replace tracking cookies with a system that sorted Chrome users into affinity groups based on their data and let advertisers target those groups. Google now proposes assigning each user several “topics” based on their browsing history, such as home decorating or basketball, and letting advertisers show ads based on those descriptors.

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But huge questions remain about how exactly the changes will be implemented both on Web browsers and on mobile phones. Privacy advocates say the changes don’t go far enough, and some argue that all tracking should be blocked completely. Web publishers, app developers and advertisers are concerned that a single company that already dominates the Internet is making changes to how the Web has worked for more than two decades, forcing everyone else to adapt.

“Google’s two year plan is too long. People deserve better privacy now,” said Marshall Erwin, Chief Security Officer of Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser which began restricting ad tracking several years ago.

Regulators, who have been increasing their scrutiny of Big Tech for the past several years, have already voiced concerns about Google’s ad-tracking changes. The United Kingdom’s competition authority recently cut a deal with Google in which the company agreed to be more transparent about changes it was making and give other companies more time to adjust to them.