We’re not even a quarter of the way through 2020 and it already feels like Google is aging us multiple years at once. In January, a good portion of the tech world stopped at the announcement that Google will be phasing out third-party cookies on Chrome. Then in February we heard about another new Google policy that could force Android apps that collect location data in the background to stop doing so.
Both moves may have benefits for users, but they also remove control from users, and that echoes previous practices that saw Google facing antitrust accusations.
Looking at Google’s privacy measures in the last year, we can see that, while they genuinely have the potential to better protect consumers around the world, they also have a very clear benefit to Google’s business. The third-party cookie ban in Google Chrome is the perfect example of just that.
Essentially, the new location-data policy says app developers will need to get user permission every time they want to access that user’s location data (instead of the blanket consent they’ve been able to get from users to date). Google says that, beginning in November, it will review each app that uses location in the background to check whether or not its use is essential to the purpose of the app.
Apple made a similar move with its iOS 13 update. By mirroring the iOS policy, Google is bringing uniformity to the way that location is dealt with across devices, and more homogeneity will bring clarity and consistency for both developers and mobile users. This is a good policy, especially in our path to a privacy-first world.
I’ve helped numerous mobile app makers implement location-based mobile experiences, so this is an area I feel I know well. And while I welcome Google’s move, I do have some reservations about its execution.
It all comes down to choice. In a privacy-first world, it’s the users, not the technology that should have the choice to decline or accept background location tracking. It’s why GDPR and CCPA rely on ensuring the proper ability to opt-in. From there, the onus is on the app to explain when it requests access to a user’s location, why it needs that access, and what value the user gains by sharing (or not sharing) their location.
It is Google’s plan to review Android apps itself, case by case, and to be the sole arbiter of whether or not an app’s use of background location delivers “clear value to the user” and is “important to the primary purpose of the app.” This has problematic repercussions.
Mobile users, not the OS, should be able to say which uses of location have value for them and which ones do not. Firstly, this value can vary greatly across users. Secondly, Google has too much involvement in different businesses to be a neutral party in this decision process.
The purpose of all of these changes from Google, and most who provide technology solutions, is to create a world that leans towards privacy-first. Privacy is slated to be the next true currency we operate around. The way to ensure this is to provide choice. And that choice — 10 times out of 10 — should belong to the end user, an actual person, and not the technology provider.
Lucas Brechot is Senior Product Marketing Manager at Herow, a location intelligence platform for mobile apps.