Recent privacy changes in the digital ad industry will mainly benefit people in rich countries

Android users are last in line for privacy protections.
Android users are last in line for privacy protections.
Image: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
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People who browse the web on personal computers and Apple devices are about to gain a bit of privacy online. That’s because major tech companies are making it harder for advertisers to use two key technologies that allow them to track individuals across the web: third-party browser cookies and Apple’s ID for Advertisers (IDFA).  As a result, advertisers will have much less power to gather mountains of granular data on what individual web users read, view, and buy online.

Tech giants—mainly Apple, Google, and the non-profit Mozilla Corporation that runs the Firefox browser—are making these changes in response to widespread public backlash against tech companies snooping on internet users, as well as a wave of new national privacy regulations inspired by Europe’s landmark General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The new laws don’t explicitly require the tech firms to stop using tools like cookies or IDFA to track people but the companies are voluntarily improving privacy protections in an effort to appease angry consumers and crusading regulators. The industry hopes these attempts at self-regulation will deter lawmakers from imposing even more onerous legal restrictions in the future.

The new restrictions on the tools advertisers use to track people are intended to empower individuals to take control of their own privacy, and make more informed decisions about which companies can access their personal data. But they won’t come to all web users at the same time. It all depends on which device you use to access the internet—and which tech giant controls its operating system.

If you have an iPhone or an iPad, chances are you’ve already seen the privacy gains: Apple’s latest software update—iOS 14.5—blocks advertisers from tracking your activity on your mobile device by default, unless you explicitly give a company permission to use your data for advertising. If you access the web via a laptop or desktop computer, you may have already gained some privacy depending on which web browser you use: Mozilla Firefox and Apple’s Safari already block advertisers from tracking you with third-party cookies by default, and Google Chrome has vowed to block third-party cookie tracking next year.

But if you access the web via an Android mobile device, there’s no plan to stop advertisers from tracking you. Google, which owns the Android operating system, has not announced any changes to the Google Advertising ID (GAID) that allows advertisers to track people’s activity on Android devices. That means that web users on Android—the world’s most popular operating system, which accounts for about 40% of the market for smartphones, computers, and tablets—are being left out of the privacy gains that the rest of the web browsing world is experiencing.

Online privacy gains flow to the wealthy

Apple devices and personal computers are more expensive than Android devices. Globally, the average iPhone sells for more than $800 and the average personal computer sells for more than $600. Android smartphones, by comparison, sell for an average of about $250 around the world.

In wealthier countries—where more consumers can afford iPhones, iPads, laptops, and desktop computers—Android tends to make up a smaller share of the operating system market. In poorer countries, however, Android mobile devices tend to be more popular. Smartphones—especially affordable Android devices—serve as a crucial gateway to the web for many new internet users. Billions of people, mainly in China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan, are expected to get online for the first time using smartphones in the next few years.

Recent privacy changes will benefit iPhone and personal computer users first, and reach Android users last. On the whole, that means they’ll tend to benefit consumers in wealthier countries first, and poorer countries last.

The correlation between a country’s wealth and its share of Android devices certainly isn’t perfect. But the list of countries that have the highest proportion of iPhone, iPad, and personal computer users—which is to say, the people stand to see online privacy gains the soonest—includes some of the world’s wealthiest nations, like the US, Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway. And the list of countries that have the highest proportion of Android users—where consumers are last in line for privacy gains—include some of the world’s poorest nations, like Sudan, Haiti, Yemen, and Niger.

There’s also a geographical component: Africa and Asia have the highest proportion of Android users, while North America, Europe, and Oceana have the lowest.

Why are Android users last in line for privacy?

Ad industry veterans are betting that Google will eventually create privacy protections for Android devices that mirror Apple’s. When Apple rolled out its changes to IDFA in April, Matt Voda, CEO of the adtech firm OptiMine, told Quartz: “Google has traditionally followed Apple’s lead from a privacy standpoint, and particularly since they’re under regulatory pressure as it is, they’re probably going to make moves that put themselves in the best possible light.”

But there’s no telling how long it will take Google to follow suit, if it ever does. If Google restricts advertisers’ ability to use GAID to track Android users, it will likely take the same approach it did when it decided to block advertisers from using third-party cookies to track people on the Chrome browser.

In January 2020, Google announced it would phase out cookie tracking in two years, giving the ad industry a grace period to adjust to the changes. Google is now working with advertisers to create alternative ways for them to target ads. The company has said it may push back its self-imposed deadline to end third-party cookie tracking, because it doesn’t want to pull the plug until the ad industry is ready for it.

Ultimately, the question of when Google might create new privacy protections for Android users becomes a question about whose needs Google wants to prioritize. Google has been slower to roll out privacy changes than Apple, which caused an uproar in the digital ad industry when it announced with little warning that it would block advertisers from tracking users through IDFA. That approach makes sense for Apple, which tries to market itself to consumers as a privacy-friendly tech giant. But Google, the world’s biggest ad vendor, has a different business model.

“There’s a huge difference in how Apple and Google are approaching this because they have a different customer base,” said Shailin Dhar, CEO of the ad tech firm Method Media Intelligence.  “Apple’s customer base is the consumer who bought an iPhone. Google’s customer base is the hardware manufacturers that make smartphones and the advertisers who buy and sell ads.”

In other words, Google has fewer incentives to deliver privacy gains to consumers that might disrupt the ad industry. As a result, the hundreds of millions of people who rely on Android devices to get online are stuck waiting for privacy protections that have already come to iPhone owners and desktop browsers.