Google Cookiegate a Case of Competitive Politics, Not Privacy

 
 
By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2012-02-20
 
 
 

Every reporter under the sun painted Google's use of cookies to insert its Google+ functionality on Apple's Safari browser as an invasion of users' privacy.

The rub is this: Google and a few other advertising companies have secretly tracked the Web-browsing habits of millions of people using Apple's Mac computers, iPhones and iPad tablets.

Apple's Safari browser is designed to prevent such monitoring to preserve user privacy, but Google and others tricked the browser into allowing the tracking via advertising cookies.

Google, which said the tracking was inadvertent and that the ad cookies did not collect personal information, disabled its code Feb. 16. Congress wants the FTC to investigate further.

Fortunately, less clouded minds such as that of John Battelle saw another huge wrinkle to this story.

That is, maybe this isn't an issue about privacy policy violations so much as why Google resorted to Cookiegate in the first place.

Apple only allows third-party cookies in certain instances, which means Google and other online providers can't rake in money there.

Why would Apple do this at a time when top browsers such as Microsoft Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox allow such tracking? Apple doesn't make much money from online ads, and iAd has been anything but a smashing success.

Apple makes billions from its great consumer hardware, OS and applications. It doesn't need the ad dollars. By preventing third-party cookies, it can keep browser makers that make money from online advertising from leveraging Safari for extra cash.

But let's face it: The move is mainly aimed at hurting Google, for whom online ads provide 96 percent of revenues each year.

I don't want to oversimplify Battelle's views on the Web, which he generally sees as closed or open, with a whole lot of nuances thrown in the mix.

But he's concerned Apple has broken the open Web, not unlike the way it eschewed Flash on its mobile devices. His argument works if you believe in (or even care about) the open Web--the idea that Web access and Websites should be open instead of closed. Sadly, average Joe Consumer doesn't care, but that doesn't make Battelle any less correct.

Battelle wrote:

Google circumvented Safari's default settings by using some trickery described in this WSJ blog post, which reports the main reason Google did what it did was so that it could know if a user was a Google+ member, and if so (or even if not so), it could show that user Google+ enhanced ads via AdSense.

In short, Apple's mobile version of Safari broke with common Web practice, and as a result, it broke Google's normal approach to engaging with consumers. Was Google's "normal approach" wrong? Well, I suppose that's a debate worth having--it's currently standard practice and the backbone of the entire Web advertising ecosystem--but the Journal doesn't bother to go into those details. One can debate whether setting cookies should happen by default--but the fact is, that's how it's done on the open Web.

It's hard for me to feel bad for Google, which got caught trying to get around Apple's self-serving rule, which is masked as a a privacy control when it's really a measure against online ad purveyors it has every incentive to keep at bay.

At the same time, I don't feel Google hurt consumers. It merely sought a competitive advantage, just as Apple has tried to do, but barring third-party cookies. I agree again with Battelle's point:

...Perhaps it's because Apple considers anyone using iOS, even if they're browsing the Web, as "Apple's customer," and wants to throttle potential competitors, ensuring that it's impossible to gain access to "Apple's" audiences using iOS in any sophisticated fashion? Might it be possible that Apple is using data as its weapon, dressed up in the PR-friendly clothing of "privacy protection" for users?

We don't get mad at Google for tracking users via cookies placed on Android phones, so why should we, or the Federal Trade Commission, for that matter, get bent out of shape about this. We shouldn't, and I won't.

Here's another thing to consider: The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, took the Google-is-gobbling-our-data-again approach. Why?

Because it's greater theater than the Google-is-tricking-Safari-to-be-able-to-serve-online ads argument, which leads to the greater argument of competition between Google, Apple and Facebook.

Accusing Google of shredding user privacy will also attract more attention from federal regulators already gunning for the search engine giant.

Rocket Fuel