Google browser on smartphone

Google commits to privacy oversight from UK watchdog

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Google has offered proposals regarding its use of customer data, following an intervention from the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The CMA has indicated that it is satisfied with the commitments.

The CMA said that Google has laid out a set of commitments from Google regarding its 'Privacy Sandbox' plans, which it said risked squeezing competition by removing third-party cookies and other functionalities from its updated Chrome browser.

The new system will split users into cohorts, and rather than a person’s browser history being sent to a central location, their own computer will figure out what they like and assign them to a group with similar interests. Online ads will still be personalised under the system, but Google claims it will afford users greater privacy.

Investigators raised concern that Google concealing user data would impede competition in digital advertising markets. The CMA launched its investigation in June this year and heard from more than 40 third parties, who raised concerns that competition would be affected by the Privacy Sandbox.

In January, the watchdog said the new system will create a walled garden that will “cause advertising spend to become even more concentrated on Google’s ecosystem at the expense of its competitors”. It could also undermine the ability of online publishers such as newspapers to generate revenue and continue to produce valuable content in the future, reducing choice for consumers.

The regulator said that, as a result of the changes proposed by Google, privacy could be secured without adversely affecting users.

Google has laid out: a commitment to greater transparency and engagement; a commitment not to remove certain functionality before third-party cookies; a commitment to improving reporting and compliance including with the appointment of a CMA-approved monitoring trustee; and a commitment to working with the CMA going ahead including mentioning the regulator’s role in key public announcements. Staff will also be informed not to make claims to customers which contradict these commitments, and must regularly report to the CMA on how they are taking third-party views into account.

Google has already announced a two-year delay on phasing out the third-party cookies for ad tracking on its browser until 2023 while it works with industry to ensure it is not given an unfair advantage.

CMA CEO Andrea Coscelli said: “We have always been clear that Google’s efforts to protect users' privacy cannot come at the cost of reduced competition. That’s why we have worked with the Information Commissioner’s Office, the CMA’s international counterparts and parties across this sector throughout this process to secure an outcome that works for everyone.

“We welcome Google’s co-operation and are grateful to all the interested parties who engaged with us during the consultation. If accepted, the commitments we have obtained from Google become legally binding, promoting competition in digital markets, helping to protect the ability of online publishers to raise money through advertising and safeguarding users’ privacy.”

The CMA has opened another consultation on the latest plans. If the commitments are adopted, this would end the CMA’s investigation and initiate its oversight role at Google. Google has indicated that if the CMA accepts its commitments, it will apply them globally.

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