Open-Source Browser Extension

Google's New Open-Source Browser Extension Will Make for Better Ad Transparency

Last updated on May 11, 2021

Google has announced that it will be coming out with a new open-source browser in an attempt to increase online advertising transparency. This will be realized by presenting users with much more information about the ads that are shown to users. The announcement, which occurred back in May of this year at the I/O developer conference where it is said that this new browser, Privacy Sandbox, is a new step in protecting user privacy.

In a proposal sent out by the internet giant, Google said, “To aid with this dialog and help explore the feasibility of this proposal, Google will launch an early, experimental, open-source browser extension that will display information for ads shown to a user and will work across different browsers.”

The plan is to reach a balance between protecting the online user’s privacy and at the same time not discarding the advertisers who collect data based on browser data.

“We plan to start with the ads that Google shows on our own properties and on the properties of our publishing partners. We will also be providing open protocols to enable other advertising companies to use the browser extension in order to disclose similar types of information to their users if they choose.”

The Problem With Google’s Ad Policy

In the past few months, online users have pushed back calling out Google and others when it comes to advertising and browser data privacy, previously unaware that their online movements were being tracked to such an extent. Google has explained that the reason online browsers like Chrome and others like it are free is solely due to data-driven adverts.

“We want to find a solution that both really protects user privacy and also helps content remain freely accessible on the web,” Justin Schuh, director with Chrome Engineering, said Thursday in a post. “At I/O we announced a plan to improve the classification of cookies, give clarity and visibility to cookie settings, as well as plans to more aggressively block fingerprinting… Collectively we believe all these changes will improve transparency, choice, and control.”

Browser fingerprinting is a huge issue which is one of the main reasons many people have turned to protect their online security and privacy by using increasingly popular VPN services. Whenever you connect to the internet via any device such as your laptop or smartphone, websites use browser fingerprinting in order to collect information on users which include things such as your browser type, operating system, time zone, screen resolution, language as well as many other settings.

Whilst all of this information will not reveal exactly who you are it is specifically relevant to advertisers who wish to market to their ideal target audience.

Privacy Sandbox will be designed to meet the needs of the advertiser, but not allow them to track specific users across various sites. Additionally, it will also help in the fight against online fraud which includes things like fake ad activity as well as false transactions. “New technologies… show that it’s possible for your browser to avoid revealing that you are a member of a group that likes Beyoncé and sweater vests until it can be sure that group contains thousands of other people,” said Justin Schuh.

When using a new website, users may have noticed that there are ways to limit or even completely block out cookies with internet giants such as Mozilla announcing plans which will disable cross-site tracking within its Firefox browser by default.

“In the physical world, users wouldn’t expect hundreds of vendors to follow them from store to store, spying on the products they look at or purchase,” Mozilla’s Nick Nguyen pointed out. “Users have the same expectations of privacy on the web, and yet, in reality, they are tracked wherever they go.”

Google claims that without a way to deliver relevant ads, it is highly likely that funding for publishers falls by around 52% on average “which jeopardizes the future of the vibrant web.” There is also a chance that by enabling cookie blocking, developers are more likely to turn to other ways of finding out user data, which includes browser fingerprinting.

“With fingerprinting, developers have found ways to use tiny bits of information that vary between users, such as what device they have or what fonts they have installed to generate a unique identifier that can then be used to match a user across websites,” said Schuh. “Unlike cookies, users cannot clear their fingerprint, and therefore cannot control how their information is collected. We think this subverts user choice and is wrong.”

What Will Google Do To Answer The Complaints?

One of the first steps that Google plans to take is to disclose information which will include the names of companies that were involved in the process that brought about the ad. While this seems to be a step in the right direction it should be noted that even though your online data might be more protected it is unlikely that it will be limiting Google’s own capability to see what you’re getting up to online.

There have been cases that have gained public traction such as in September 2018 where critics blasted Google for their online privacy policy. Matthew Green, a cryptographer, and professor at the John Hopkins University criticized Google for its questionable privacy policy as he realized that Chrome would automatically sign in the browser into your Google account without you having to actually log in.

“If you didn’t respect my lack of consent on the biggest user-facing privacy option in Chrome (and didn’t even notify me that you had stopped respecting it!) why should I trust any other consent option you give me?” Green said. He added, “I’m forced to…hope that the Chrome team keeps promises to keep all of my data local as the barriers between ‘signed in’ and not signed in’ are gradually eroded away.”

This is of course not the first time that Google has come under attack for issues like this, but it isn’t the only online giant that has. Facebook has also been the target of such allegations with sidekicks WhatsApp and Instagram also included. The fact is that Facebook’s share button is on as many as 275 million web pages all of which collect data that allow advertisers to see what type of content you’re viewing.

Google will aim to follow web standards and will seek feedback on the initial ideas surrounding Privacy Sandbox.

“While Chrome can take action quickly in some areas (for instance, restrictions on fingerprinting) developing web standards is a complex process, and we know from experience that ecosystem changes of this scope take time,” said Google. “They require significant thought, debate, and input from many stakeholders, and generally take multiple years.”

This is something that will definitely shape the way individuals use the internet and it will be interesting to find out just how far Google will go in protecting the average online user all the while keeping advertisers happy at the same time.