Google to restrict ads that cater to spyware and surveillance technology

The search giant has issued guidelines limiting what can be paid for by the company in exchange for placement. Now, advertisers can only buy ad space for which a market-research company has determined the ads “improve the capabilities of the targeted technology.” Market research is a sort of payment for advance sales.

In a related move, Google has also reduced the size of the “payload” on any ad placed on Google search results, deleting any data about shoppers’ whereabouts that may have been reported. So, for example, a search for “chocolate cake” now lists only the amount of chocolate – nothing else.

These new moves were disclosed in the company’s first public discussion of its policy concerning advance payments, a secretive set of rules that Google posts in a separate document but does not share widely with advertisers. (It is also opaque to the public at large.)

In 2015, Google implemented a policy that promised not to hand over its users’ data to third parties even if the target company paid for that data, with the potential exception of up to $3,000 in “expense reimbursements” for research. The precise rules to apply – and how they can be interpreted by researchers, businesses and other companies interested in research and charging for it – are buried in a separate document called “Site Markup Guidelines.”

It is unclear whether Google is defining “payload” broadly enough to permit payments to advertisers for all information the search results collect, or whether the company is stretching the definition to specify data the data collection is intended to unlock. (Under existing policies, Google does not use information on the subjection of individual users to make its ad decisions.)

Under the new documents, Google is seeking permission from advertisers to change its existing rulebook in a series of subtle, smart, but nevertheless widespread, policies tweaks that might also have a significant financial impact on Google’s business partners. For example, the new rules could give advertisers more power to avoid advertising on sites that collect information that tracks or targets specific shoppers. This topic is not addressed in the new policies.

Google’s policy tweak, the first in a series of modest changes, essentially strips out a specific kind of business that has benefited from its global dominance. It represents a shift in the way that Google prizes its relationship with advertisers – a shift that could also affect all competitors competing with Google for ad revenue. And it also points to a structural weakness that makes Google a strange kind of monopoly, even in markets where it has not been the dominant force.

With people increasingly using Google services, such as maps, email and search, the company benefits from an entrenched power – that is, its ability to capture information about people’s everyday habits that it can manipulate, repackage and sell to advertisers. The more quickly consumers adopt Google services, the less power there is in general to stop Google from getting data about consumers that it can then sell back to them.

The shift in emphasis is as significant as the changes in policy. Google once encouraged advertisers to set up joint marketing ventures with market research companies, in part to gain access to valuable consumer data. The alliance formed by shopper-data companies, such as Acxiom and Experian, was called the Retail Partner Program, and it is one of several examples cited in the new policy.

Google’s new policies would seem to discourage those joint marketing efforts. For example, in a tweak that clearly targets Acxiom, the document now says that marketers would be prohibited from working with “market research companies that provide personalised shopping insights from a user’s past purchases” to “increase product trial.” (Ironically, market research companies often help product testers identify the next hit, and they often buy data from Google about such testers.)

Google also seeks input on other changes in the policy in writing, but it’s not clear what they mean. They are in a document called “Standard Product Overview.” If the description above is accurate, it seems likely that these new policies will limit pay-for-a-search opportunities for companies that want to replicate Google’s success by harnessing its consumer data.

It would be a tragic move, because a large amount of attention paid to marketing research is a good thing. But if consumers and governments persist in allowing Google’s dominance to increase, this is a price they’ll have to pay.

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