Google has been quietly baking a plan to replace the Internet "cookies" used to track Internet browsing activities with its own anonymous identification system. Google's proprietary identifier, called "AdID," could shift the balance of power in the US $120 billion digital advertising industry and shake up the debate over online privacy.
USA Today caught the scent of Google's plan through an anonymous source who described how AdID might work. Google's AdID would be offered to advertisers as an alternative to today's cookies that act as tiny digital trackers following the online activity of Web users. Like cookies, AdID would help companies and advertisers gather information about consumer interests and behaviors—a way to target people with online ads tailored to their personal tastes.
One huge difference would be that Google itself would gain much greater control over the information-gathering process that serves as the bedrock for digital advertising. The Internet giant already dominates online advertising, accounting for one-third of worldwide online ad revenue. Add to that the fact that its Chrome Internet browser has become the most popular in the world.
Many advertisers and advertising industry groups interviewed by USA Today seemed nervous about placing even greater control of digital advertising's fate in the hands of a few technology giants such as Google. Mike Zaneis, general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, worried about changes in AdID suddenly jeopardizing billions of dollars in digital ad spending.
Still, advertisers who agree to Google's terms for AdID might benefit from the use of a single identifier that can create more personalized profiles of Web users, said Mike Anderson, chief technology officer of Tealium, a company that specializes in helping digital marketers better manage online tags, in a Wall Street Journal interview. The biggest benefit to advertisers will be eliminating the confusion that arises from the use of different third-party cookies; right now, advertisers can't tell if they're all tracking the same user or not.
Cookies have already stirred up controversy over how much information they allow companies and advertisers to collect about Web users. Microsoft's latest version of the Internet Explorer browser offers users a "Do Not Track" feature, and Mozilla has made blocking third-party cookies the default option in its Firefox browser since earlier this year. Apple has blocked third-party cookies on its Safari browser from the start, but the company introduced its own ad identifiers for the iOS mobile platform used on its popular iPhones.
Google's AdID plan would supposedly allow users to adjust their browser settings to limit ad tracking and even exclude companies on Google's list of approved advertisers, according to USA Today's anonymous source. Users would also have the choice to create a secondary AdID for "private" online browsing sessions—likely a reference to browser features such as Google's "Incognito" mode that disables cookies.
Giving consumers greater control over ad tracking sounds good in theory. But Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford University professor who studies online advertising and privacy, told the Wall Street Journal it was "unclear" whether Google's anonymous identifier would actually improve online privacy. And it's always worth keeping in mind that Google's wildly successful business model has been built upon gathering information, rather than limiting data collection.
Illustration: Randi Klett; Original photos: iStockphoto
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.