In a move that Google is framing as protective of privacy, the company says it will stop including information about the type of material on a publisher's page in the bid requests it sends to buyers participating in Google auctions.
“Beginning in February 2020 we will no longer include contextual content categories in the bid requests,” Google's Chetna Bindra, senior product manager, writes.
“Content categories” indicate the type of material on a page. Bindra offers “news” or “weather” as examples, but the categories can also include sensitive topics -- including ones relating to health conditions, religious affiliations and political leanings.
Bindra says the shift is aimed at curbing the chance that programmatic companies will link “individual ad identifiers” -- meaning alphanumeric strings attached to individual users or devices -- with particular types of content.
She added that the company made its decision after talks with regulators.
Privacy advocates, including an executive with the browser company Brave, recently complained to authorities in Ireland, the UK and Poland about the practices of Google and other ad companies. In their complaints, they alleged that Google (and other companies) profile users based on sensitive material, including religious beliefs, ethnicities, diseases, disabilities, and sexual orientation.
“Every time you visit a website that uses ad auctions, personal data about you is broadcast in 'bid requests' to tens or hundreds of companies,” Brave executive Johnny Ryan stated in January. “Part of this process categorizes what you watch or read or listen to. The categories can be benign, such as 'Tesla motors,' 'bowling,' or 'gadgets.' But ... they can also be extraordinarily sensitive.”
Google defended its content categories earlier this year, arguing that its list of verticals enabled contextual ads, and also allowed advertisers avoid having ads appear next to inappropriate content.
Ryan said Thursday that Google's announcement doesn't resolve his concerns, given all the other data the company transmits about users.
“It appears Google will still broadcast bid requests that contain things like URL, approximate location and data to link these over time, to countless companies, billions of times a day. These data contain personal and special category data so this appears to be a cosmetic change,” Ryan told the Financial Times.
Jason Kint, CEO of the online publishers' group Digital Content Next, expressed skepticism about Google's move -- which apparently could limit ad companies' ability to target ads contextually.
“Contextual targeting is an antidote to enhance privacy if it's not attached to personal data,” he said in a Twitter post. “No one collects more personal data than Google. That doesn't change here as I read it.”