Washington (AFP) - Google announced plans Wednesday to limit ad tracking on its Android operating system, a sensitive privacy issue that rival Apple has already moved to address on its iPhones.
Tech giants are under growing pressure to better balance privacy and ad-targeting, as users complain, regulators threaten tougher rules, but the companies themselves try to maintain access to the data key to their many billions in ad revenue.
Apple and Google's operating software run on the majority of the world's smartphones, thus any changes they make to their policies have the potential to impact billions of users.
"Our goal...is to develop effective and privacy enhancing advertising solutions, where users know their information is protected, and developers and businesses have the tools to succeed on mobile," Google said in a statement.
For its part, Apple announced last year that users of its one billion iPhones in circulation can decide whether to allow their online activity to be tracked for the purpose of targeting ads.
It was a change which Apple said shows its focus is on privacy, but that critics noted does not prevent the company itself from tracking its users.
Apple's tweak has sent ripples through the tech world, with Facebook parent Meta saying it expects that policy to cost the social media giant $10 billion in lost revenue this year.
A heavy impact is expected because less data will impact the precision of the ads Meta and other companies can sell, and thus their price.
Online advertising billions
Google gave an indication of the timing of its announced changes, saying "we plan to support existing ads platform features for at least two years, and we intend to provide substantial notice ahead of any future changes."
At present, the internet search giant assigns an identity to Android-powered devices, which enables advertisers to have a profile of people's habits and thus send them ads they might be interested in.
Google said it is working on ways to better protect users' privacy, which would "limit sharing of user data with third parties and operate without cross-app identifiers, including advertising ID."
It contrasted its plans with Apple's moves, saying, "we realize that other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers."
While Google argued that the changes would protect users' anonymity, it could also further strengthen the dominance the tech giant already holds over the digital advertising industry.
Google's parent Alphabet pulled in over $60 billion in the fourth quarter of 2021 just in ad revenue, which makes up over 80 percent of its income.
But new pressure to change is building on Big Tech due to advancing landmark European legislation that could set unprecedented oversight, and similar efforts are underway in the United States.
The Facebook whistleblower scandal last year boosted regulation efforts long-stalled by sharp partisan divides in Washington, but for the moment no major legislation has gotten significant momentum.
In the absence of action from the federal government legislation or rules, states have launched their own lawsuits.
In one such complaint filed in January, multiple states accuse Google of tracking users' location data despite leading consumers to believe they could protect their privacy on its services.