The Alphabet Inc. unit is working to convince consumers and regulators that it takes privacy and security seriously.

(Bloomberg)—Google kicked off its biggest developer event of the year with a heavy emphasis on its artificial-intelligence based assistant and new privacy-focused features.

People will soon be able to search Google Maps and YouTube in private “incognito” mode, a feature that has been available on the company’s Chrome browser for years. Google will also put privacy controls on the first page of settings menus in its apps, executives said Tuesday at the I/O conference in Mountain View, California. Users of Android mobile software will be able to authenticate a login to a Google account by tapping a button on their phones.

Much of the initial presentation made by Google executives at the opening session focused on AI features meant to simplify daily tasks, such as booking a rental car or screening calls. The company stressed tools that are meant to help people with disabilities or those who don’t know how to read. For example, Google engineers shrunk the size of its speech and text translate program so people with slower internet connections and less expensive phones, particularly in developing countries, can use the service.

“We are moving from a company that helps you find answers to a company that helps you get things done,’’ Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in his opening remarks.

The Alphabet Inc. unit is working to convince consumers and regulators that it takes privacy and security seriously. Even as executives spoke to thousands of developers in the open-air theater near the company’s campus, a small plane flew overhead, pulling a banner that read “Google control is not privacy.”

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For the assistant upgrades, Google’s emphasis was on speed. The company didn’t share any new data on users of its Google Home products or the digital assistant, which competes with rival voice-based services from Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc., No. 1 and No. 2 in the Internet Retailer 2019 Top 1000, respectively.  Pichai shared a new computing landmark that showed a vast improvement in how quickly Google’s assistant can churn out results and flip through apps on the phone. “This makes the assistant faster,” he said. “So fast that tapping to use your phone would seem slow.”

Google has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the phone-tapping Pichai was talking about. While the company hasn’t offered a clear business model for its assistant, voice search does have the potential to take time away from Google’s lucrative web search, and Google doesn’t want to surrender this burgeoning business to rivals.

Google gives users more control over tracking

Google also is tightening the rules for how websites track people who use its Chrome web browser, an effort to assure users it wants them to be in control over who watches their moves online.

The Alphabet Inc. unit is tweaking Chrome so that developers will have to specify how far their online tracking software, generally known as cookies, can reach. That will make it easier for people to choose exactly which kinds of cookies can follow them and which ones can’t.

“We want users to have a real choice, and useful control,” Ben Galbraith, senior director of product at Chrome said in an interview. “We’re not looking to do something that’s going to confuse people or is just so buried that no one will find it.”

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The change comes as regulators and consumers around the world are demanding more transparency on how their personal data are being used, and more privacy to shield themselves from online surveillance. Google’s massive advertising business depends on learning about people—like where they go, what they buy and what they read—and sending them targeted ads.

The shift could also send shockwaves through the advertising industry. About 70% of desktop online browsing happens on Chrome, making Google the default gatekeeper of significant amounts of information about users. A report by Adweek earlier this year that said Google might cut cross-website tracking cookies sent stocks of advertising tech companies Criteo SA and The Trade Desk Inc. plummeting, since their businesses rely in part on internet tracking.

In Google’s vision of the world, websites should be able to identify, remember and track users, as long as those people know about it and can opt out if they want. It’s practical to have a bank’s website remember your log-in information; not so much a site arrived at after accidentally clicking through an ad.

Chrome already lets people choose to block all cookies and trackers, but that kind of blanket action means users lose out on some of the positive benefits of these tools, Galbraith and Chrome Engineering Director Justin Schuh wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

“Blunt solutions that block all cookies can significantly degrade the simple web experience that you know today,’’ the two executives wrote.

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Giving people more than an either-or choice is similar to other changes Google is making across its empire, like letting users set a timer to clear their location data every three or 18 months.

Both changes try to break the all-or-nothing model consumers have right now: either be tracked completely, or not at all. Google’s business and its vision of the internet demand some level of following and data collection, but the company is increasingly coming to grips with the fact that most people want to know they have control over that process, or they’ll just turn it off completely.

Google also announced a tool being released soon that will help people learn why they were presented with a specific Google-run ad, and which advertising-tech companies provided information to aid the targeting. Google will invite other advertising players to provide data of their own for consumers to scrutinize.

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