Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty)

Every big tech event in 2019 has a buzzword in common: privacy.

One week ago, it was Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg who had “the future is private” float over his head. Apple CEO Tim Cook has been banging the privacy drum for the past year in an attempt to position his company as the Good Guy. And this week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai jumped in the game, touting the company’s privacy bona fides both in the annual Google I/O event in Silicon Valley and then on the pages of the New York Times. Privacy wins big PR points, that much is obvious. But when “privacy” becomes a marketing tool, can we believe any of it?

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Pichai outperformed Zuck by any measure because Google is demoing and shipping privacy features at a faster and more ambitious rate than Facebook—a decidedly low bar to clear.

“We think privacy is for everyone, not just for the few,” Pichai said on Tuesday, likely taking a dig at Apple and its $1,000-plus iPhones. “We want to do more to stay ahead of constantly evolving user expectations.”

All this privacy talk from Silicon Valley’s biggest companies comes amid growing calls for federal privacy legislation. The turning tide is not just in “user expectations” but in lawmaker agendas. And both Zuckerberg and Pichai say they support federal privacy legislation similar to Europe’s GDPR.

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“We think the United States would benefit from adopting its own comprehensive privacy legislation and have urged Congress to pass a federal law,” Pichai wrote in his Times op-ed. “Ideally, privacy legislation would require all businesses to accept responsibility for the impact of their data processing in a way that creates consistent and universal protections for individuals and society as a whole.”

So Pichai, like Zuckerberg and Cook, sees the writing on the wall: Federal privacy legislation is looming (if still far off) and, relatedly, protecting privacy is top of users’ minds. It’s only common sense, then, to use the company’s biggest event of the year to get a jump on the ostensibly inevitable. So, did Google’s latest privacy announcements actually put the company ahead of the curve in any truly meaningful way, or is it mostly for show?

One of Google’s major new recent privacy announcements is that it will provide improved controls of cookies meant to limit tracking across the web on Chrome, by far the world’s most popular web browser. This is the Silicon Valley giant playing catch up.

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Forget Facebook here. Google faces more serious competition from other comers, namely the creators of the number two and three most-used browsers in the world: Apple’s Safari has come with the Intelligent Tracking Prevention tool for two years; Mozilla’s Firefox private browsing mode already boasts robust tracking blockers. Smaller browsers like Brave have even stronger protections.

“That’s all well and good, but if it’s something buried in the settings then only the most privacy-conscious people are ever going to use it,” Bennett Cyphers, an engineer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said of Google’s efforts to limit cookie tracking. “Those people are already using tracker blockers which do a lot more than what this is going to do. When it comes to the major browsers, especially Chrome which has a robust extension ecosystem, defaults matter. Defaults are really the only thing that matter. They can add settings all they want, but until they change the default behavior in regular and incognito browser mode, this isn’t going to make a dent in what trackers can do.”

Defaults matter because research has shown for years that the vast majority of people will use software exactly as it’s given to them. Google didn’t respond to questions about what will change in their browser by default and what will require people to dig into settings to adjust.

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Take Safari, the second most popular browser. Apple is trying to block tracking cookies by default, everywhere, all the time.

“Those cookies almost never do anything good for users,” Cyphers said. “They’re pretty much always used to build behavior profiles with companies that users don’t intend to interact with in order to target users with ads that creep them out and sell them things they don’t want. Third-party cookies should be restricted or blocked all the time.”

Google, the biggest ad company in the world, is now boasting that it will offer more choices over tracking cookies, one of the advertising world’s creepiest and most profitable tools. But is it really an equal choice if it’s buried deep in settings? What if users were given a genuinely equal option on installation or in an update?

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In addition to cracking down on cookies, Google announced that it will allow users to delete certain data after three or 18 months. (Why those timeframes? It’s currently unclear.) It also rolled out an expanded incognito mode for both search and Maps, meaning you can use those Google tools without that data being automatically linked to your profile. And with the release of Android Q Google will also let you only allow apps to access your location when you’re actually using them (something, it should be noted, iOS users have been able to do for years).

Google also said that it would work aggressively against browser fingerprinting, a tactic used by advertisers and governments to collect specific information on browsers like screen resolution, version and device in order to create a “fingerprint” unique to you—so that they can better track you and, in the case of advertisers, know more about you in an effort to manipulate your behavior into whatever makes them money this week.

Fighting against fingerprinting is great and difficult for a browser like Chrome. No details were offered about how they would accomplish the goal or when it would happen.

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Here’s what we do know: What happened at Google I/O this week, what took place at Facebook F8 last week, what Apple has been hammering home at their own events is proof that the conversation around privacy has shifted with consumers and regulators.

“I mean I have to say as someone who works in privacy that it’s incredibly rewarding and interesting to see major companies take a beat after every single product announcement and talk about why privacy and security is so important,” said Joseph Jerome, a lawyer at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “They did this at I/O with absolutely everything.”

But at this point, people are looking for more than a shift in the conversation. Increasingly, people want real changes in the technology whether by the companies themselves or, as polls have shown for years, by new federal privacy law. Google is now selling that change, let’s see what they actually deliver.

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