Google launches Chrome extension for ad transparency, Trust Token API

Google has taken new steps towards its grand master plan to revamp the online advertising ecosystem.

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Image: Google

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Google has launched this week a Chrome extension that shows how many ads are being loaded on any given web page, what advertisers or ad tech companies are present on the page, and what user data has been used to show personalized ads.

The extension, named Ads Transparency Spotlight, is available on the official Chrome Web Store.

Google said it released the extension to make it easier for users to understand how ads are being shown. The company previously showed information about its own ads via the "Why this ad" link embedded in each ad, but this was a Google Ads-specific mechanism.

The new Ads Transparency Spotlight extension has been built around a new API called the "Ad Disclosure Schema" that creates a uniform system through which advertisers can disclose how their ads work.

Currently, the Chrome extension pulls info about Google's Ad Disclosure Schema and shows it inside the extension, but Google hopes that other advertisers will soon expose a similar API/schema for their systems and make the extension more usable, while also helping set users' minds at ease about how and why they're seeing specific ads.

Per its manual, currently, the extension can show information such as:

  • Detailed information about the ads on the web page, including how many ads are on the page.
  • A list of ad providers responsible for serving the ads on the page. These companies serve ads or provide the ad technology to help ads appear on this page.
  • The reasons why ads are shown on a page. A combination of several factors that decide which ad will be shown on a page:
    • Your demographics: May include age, gender, and other information (provided by you or inferred).
    • Marketing Campaign: A visit to the advertiser's website added you to a marketing campaign.
    • Your location: General: Broad location, such as country or city.
    • Your location: Specific: Your specific location.
    • Your interests: Topics related to websites you have visited or interests you provided.
    • Context: Topics shown to anyone who visits this page.
    • Other information: All other reasons.

Besides companies that serve ads directly, the extension will also list companies in the ad tech business, in general, such as companies loading social media buttons, web analytics, or tracking scripts on the page.

For each of these, visible in the Entities section, Google will also link to each company's privacy policy where each company lists what data they collect about users and how they store the data.

Part of a broader effort

The extension released this week is part of a broader effort at Google to revamp the advertising ecosystem and regain user trust.

Starting with the spring of 2019, Google has set out on a plan to change the fundamentals of web advertising.

As ad blockers browser extensions became more popular and more browsers began deploying built-in features to block tracking and user-fingerprinting scripts, Google saw the writing on the wall -- that the web was heading toward a situation where ads would be blocked in most browsers and websites depending on ads would eventually slowly die off, lacking proper revenue.

Google's plan to prevent a future adpocalypse focused on dealing away with the older technologies that enabled the toxic ad ecosystem we have today and introducing new ones.

The first thing that Google did was phase away third-party cookies, a technology that allowed advertisers to track users across browsers with incredible accuracy.

Second, Google deployed a built-in ad blocker into Chrome, an ad blocker that didn't block ads on all websites, but only on misbehaving ones.

As for replacements for today's ad tech, Google announced in 2019 the Privacy Sandbox, a new technology to be embedded into Chrome that work by sharing enough information about users so advertisers could organize users into generic groups, but not enough to create detailed individual profiles about each user (i.e. "this user likes sports cars" instead of "this user visited the BMW and McLaren websites 20 hours ago").

Further, Google also announced another new tech called the Privacy Budget, which would work by limiting the number of times advertisers could query data about user details from browser APIs.

The new Trust Token API

This week, Google also officially announced another new privacy-friendly API its engineers have been working on, part of this plan for a better ad ecosystem.

Called the Trust Token API, this is a new browser technology that comes to address a problem that will appear once support for third-party cookies is removed completely.

Unknown to many, besides tracking users across the web, third-party cookies were also an ideal anti-fraud and anti-bot detection system.

The new Trust Token API will work as an alternative by generating unique cryptographically-signed tokens for each user that advertisers can't use for tracking, but website owners can still access to determine if a user is a bot or real person.

This API is still in the works, and Google published an intro into the new technology on its Web.dev blog last month, in case ZDNet readers want to learn more.