Discover more from Schizochronotopia
"The main motivation for this work is privacy"
In between a rock and a private place, publishers surface all the advantages and disadvantages of the ad ecosystem
So privacy mode moves to become invisible. Publishers were using that!
Generally, I think trying to detect a user who is explicitly trying to go undetectable is a bad idea. Publications have the best case for interdicting privacy-mode users. The majority of privacy mode hits to publisher sites are likely to bypass the means by which they pay people to create the content (bad) and, basically by accident, makes things even harder for publishers by not only skipping a paywall, but also stripping out the target-able user data that digital ads are sold on. There’s a genuine argument to be made on the other side as well; some people who use privacy mode do so with a genuine concern about the surveillance state and tracking and with the ecosystem of ad tech.
But let’s put aside if this is actually “OK” for a second and talk about the reality of Chrome’s changes.
In the document Google used to announce the feature, they state: “The main motivation for this work is privacy”. This puts simply the position of publishers who might attempt to detect incognito as “against privacy”. Very black and white, very binary.
Reality has some grays.
When the Chrome announcement of the feature came out, the papers who employed incognito mode blocking were pretty much locals. Most people didn’t notice the announcement. I know I missed it when it came out early in February. Beyond that, actual releases of Chrome features are not always on schedule and occasionally subject to outside pressure. It didn’t seem to stop The New York Times from rolling out their blocker.
There’s a good idea here, a good cause in theory. I think we can all agree, generally speaking, that privacy is good and giving users more privacy is good. Giving people the tools to enforce their decision to be more private is good.
It reminds me of AMP, which also has a good idea at its core. But because it is backed by Google tech, pushed to general use by Google’s weight in the community and leveraged to force adoption due to its presence in Google’s search pages it is deformed by those interests and requirements, no matter how open source it is. Google allows it to bypass all the usual checks and balances for web standards and has created its own non-traditional incentives for users. At the same time, Google’s incentives are a little less than clear.
The problem isn’t just ‘is blocking people in privacy mode bad?’. The question is who gets to decide, when, why and with what justification? Perhaps most of the people who are trying to access publisher sites in privacy mode are doing so because they have genuine concerns about their privacy and user data. But perhaps not. I’m withholding my own opinion here, but I do think this can be the sort of discussion a consumer can have with the publisher they are trying to read, an active challenge and dialogue through use, reviews and public reaction. This is the sort of things publishers and readers can determine together. Well, at least it was. Now they can’t. But Google can!
Music break! Last week I stumbled on Ukrainian rap group Grebz, and have been highly enjoying their 2016 album along with their big hit “Ice Melts”:
A publisher doesn’t have data to make more money off the user in privacy mode, but Google does. It has your device, your browser, potentially your operating system, those device IDs, geodata, IP address, occasionally network-level data, the ad tech behind the page to weave all those pieces of data together, parse that data, turn it into a persistent ID, privacy mode or not.
This hits at a deeper issue. When people interact with the internet they do so at the surface of whatever particular page they are on. The underlying systems or economics beneath the page aren’t obvious to them, nor are the mechanics of the browser they operate on. But pages on the web are subject to those mechanisms anyway. If Safari, Firefox or IE make a change to how their browser interacts with the web, it is a single pressure point. When Google makes a change to how their browser interacts with the page, especially in regard to privacy, they are usually penalizing sites for mechanics introduced by Google elsewhere. This persists across almost all Google decision making. The capability to introduce both problem and punishment without ever being identified as the cause is… troubling. Let’s take for example:
Google changes SERP listing to include speed as a measure / Google’s ad serving system is the biggest drag on speed for most sites.
Google pushes AMP for better cleaner faster websites (in theory) / The biggest problem causing complexity and extra scripts on websites are ad-served scripts that Google is capable of blocking in its ad systems but doesn’t.
Google removes privacy mode detection / Google’s ecosystem is built to value user data, even perhaps over the interest of the publishers using it.
When Google speaks out about issues it wishes to resolve, it seems these issues are mostly due to Google’s operations elsewhere. But they don’t identify themselves as the problem and so disadvantage falls entirely on publishers. Google squeezes their ability to operate sustainably from both ends and, because users encounter these problems on the level of the webpage, the blame for why the system works the way it does lands squarely on publishers’ shoulders.
I think individual Chrome engineers’ motivation for the work of privacy is likely pretty genuine. But that doesn’t counteract a system that uses that motivation in the service of Google’s business.
If you are dealing blackjack in a casino and you give one customer a win because you feel bad for them you’re not actually helping. This is the same thing happening at Google. Privacy mode is nice, but it does nothing about the fact that the vast Google overmind is focused on slurping up your data and feeding it to others. The deep internal knowledge Google has of Chrome as an in-house operation benefits them in the long term because it allows them to deform the entire marketplace to work in accordance with their ad tech and they get to be the most ahead of the curve in implementation.
We are all, readers and publishers, gamblers on the web while Google runs the tables; and the house always wins.
At the end of the day the core problem is why should Google alone get to decide what privacy should look like for the majority of users?
Why should Google be the one to decide how publications react to the privacy movement, how they set their editorial strategy, how they monetize, how they set up their pages, and not just one of these things but all aspects, all the time? By turning off privacy mode detection for publishers it makes them and the entire ad ecosystem more reliant on Google. By what right has Google taken this authority and by what right do they get to exercise it without explanation or warning? These are serious questions that need some serious answers.
This is not to say that Google can only do wrong, but we do need to acknowledge the perverse incentives that fundamentally deform any attempt to do good. Google is only too happy to lay the problems it creates at the feet of others. We shouldn’t let them escape blameless.
For some individuals at Google, perhaps the main motivation is privacy, but at the end of the day, it all ends in service of accruing to Google more power, more money and more control over the web. No matter what benefits appear to trickle down to us, in the end, it only advantages Google.
"Because our laws frame privacy as an individual right, we don’t have a mechanism for deciding whether we want to live in a surveillance society."
What’s certain now, is that, the old rules of the internet are being rewritten right now. And whether we like it or not, the borderless, stateless, cyberspace is not going to be happening anytime soon.
“We need to approach building these products with user preferences in mind […] anything that relies on people taking it upon themselves to protect their data is doomed. […] If they’re telling you they care about privacy but don’t always behave like they do, you still need to have respect for them […] They mean what they say and they’re not children. They’re not lying to you.”
The complexity of how Google’s products weave together—and the opacity of its pricing—makes the process of buying online ads murky even to industry insiders.
“Even industry veterans don’t have perfect knowledge of how the whole thing works,” Mr. Vidakovic said. “It’s really just a labyrinth.”
Interested in talking more about this newsletter? Join the Keybase.io team to chat about it: https://keybase.io/team/gneist.newsletter
Dim Sum! (Used under CC BY-NC-ND)