ProPublica slams Google for opt-in targeting changes that happened in June


He said. She said. ProPublica is taking Google to task for privacy policy changes that combine web browsing data and user profiles for greater ads personalization. The changes were originally introduced in June, at which time we reported on them.

My article then focused on the opt-in dimension of ads personalization:

In parallel with My Activity, Google is introducing “Ads Personalization.” This is an evolution of the older “Ads Preferences Manager” and newer “ad settings” manager, which allows people to influence the types of ads they see by indicating areas of interest or disinterest or by entirely opting out.

The new Ads Personalization functionality is turned off by default and must be activated by consumers. Google will expose users to the new personalization option and invite them to turn it on. The company promises better and more relevant ads from opting-in. Google hopes Ads Personalization will not only improve the ad experience but give users a better sense of control over the ads they see — across devices.

These changes have, in part, helped Google beef up audience targeting features and cross-device retargeting. ProPublica characterizes the changes as more sinister:

The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on the keywords they used in their Gmail. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.

The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous. In recent years, Facebook, offline data brokers and others have increasingly sought to combine their troves of web tracking data with people’s real names. But until this summer, Google held the line.

It’s not clear why ProPublica is reporting on this now vs. several months ago. However, this is another one of those situations where your view of Google’s actions will be colored by whether you believe the company’s public statements or have more conspiratorial views. Regardless, I think it’s clear that Google has sought to enhance its audience targeting capabilities to better compete with Facebook.

At the time of the changes, back in June, I said that some in the US may object but in Europe they would be a much harder sell. EU regulators have long objected to broad data collection practices by US internet companies such as Google and Facebook. But the opt-in feature is precisely what EU member countries have sought from Google and others.

Roughly 20 percent of users on iOS now limit ad tracking, according to In addition, a percentage of the growing mobile ad-blocking audience is doing so to prevent tracking. While most of ad blocking is about preventing a slow or bad user experience, data suggest that roughly 40 percent of US ad blockers have privacy concerns.

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