Google's Privacy Sandbox is a Data Privacy Paradox

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Google Privacy Sandbox

Google’s plan to cut cookies from Chrome has created a privacy paradox as critics from both ends of the privacy debate question the proposal's impact on digital advertising.

Dubbed “Privacy Sandbox”, Google’s new model creates a new standard for how advertisers and websites access information about customers, limiting user data being shared with third parties and removing cross-app identifiers while still supporting personalised ads. 

Google plans to do this by introducing a series of APIs – one of the most notable being its conversion measurement API, which will replace cookie functionality and let an advertiser know if a user saw its ad and then eventually bought the product or landed on the promoted page.

This would essentially attribute ads to pageviews and purchase impacts in Chrome, affecting all aspects of digital advertising from how budgets are divided between channels to which products ad tech vendors build. 

First announced in 2019, Sandbox has faced a series of delays due to a lack of confidence in the underlying technology powering the model and negative feedback from advertisers. 

Originally planned for release in the third quarter of 2023, the cookieless system has since been now delayed until the second half of 2024 as testing continues. 

In a blog post on Thursday, Google’s senior director of product management for Privacy Sandbox, Victor Wong, revealed some of the “core tenants” the effort aimed to focus on upon release next year. 

“We are making one of the largest changes to how the Internet works at a time when people, more than ever, are relying on the free services and content that the Web offers,” Victor Wong, Google’s senior director of product management for Privacy Sandbox wrote in a blog post on Thursday. 

“As an industry, we must transition to new, more private solutions that don’t rely on cross-site tracking and provide publishers and marketers with the capabilities they need to succeed online. We believe that consumer platforms – browsers and mobile operating systems – have a responsibility to support this transition by building new tools for the ecosystem.”

Privacy paradox 

Wong and his team have struggled to get ad tech companies on board with his proposals for a privacy-centric, cookieless Chrome. 

Right now, third-party cookies make it easy for companies to track users as movements on Chrome, allowing them to target specific users with ads tailored to their needs and interests. 

These cookies are blocked in Apple’s Safari and other browsers like Firefox, but not in Google Chrome, the browser of choice for the vast majority of the world. When Chrome blocks those cookies, they’re effectively cut from the internet. 

Advertisers fear that Google’s new privacy technology will deprive them of data that Google and other large companies like Apple can collect from consumers who use their online services. 

Paradoxically, while advertisers fear they may not get access to enough data, data privacy advocates say Privacy Sandbox just lets Google and others exploit user data in a different way.

Google’s First-Party Sets proposal, which allows companies to declare relationships among sites, would weaken privacy boundaries between sites, making it easier for sites to track users while they browse.

Meanwhile, its WebBundles proposal, part of Privacy Sandbox proposals like FLEDGE, would allow a website to fetch multiple web resources from a single URL, allowing them to sneak trackers into users’ browsers in the same way threat actors sneak malware onto your computer by packaging harmful software in safe-looking attachments.

To read more about data privacy, visit our dedicated Data Management Page. 

Voices on every side of the issue are concerned that Wong and his team’s proposals will damage the framework of digital advertising and the internal as a whole. 

The fact Google has such power demonstrates its supremacy within such spaces. When one company begins to wield such power, it's bound to stir up strong emotions in people. 

Despite its efforts, convincing the world that everything will be alright becomes a precarious task for Google, especially when a colossal $500 billion industry is at stake.

Market Monopoly 

As critics from both ends of the debate question whether Sandbox will remove or increase access to personal data, regulators are concerned that Google’s proposals will not provide an even playing field between itself and the rest of the ad industry.

Google has internal teams that are dedicated to advertising, and industry insiders are concerned the search giant will make an exception for its own teams and grant them access to granular-level user data to protect its share of advertising earnings. 

This could entrench Google’s dominance of the digital advertising market and make it more difficult for online publishers and other advertising companies to make money. 

The UK’s Competition and Market Authority (CMA) have been closely monitoring the privacy model since early 2022, citing concerns that the proposals would cause online marketing to become even more concentrated on Google, weakening competition. 

In response, Google released a  blog post about its obligations under the commitments and the next phase in the development of the Privacy Sandbox and details on the process it will follow in engaging with third parties. The CMA accepted Google's response but continues to investigate. 

"The commitments we have obtained from Google will promote competition, help to protect the ability of online publishers to raise money through advertising and safeguard users’ privacy," said Andrea Coscelli, the CMA’s Chief Executive. 

“While this is an important step, we are under no illusions that our work is done. We now move into a new phase where we will keep a close eye on Google as it continues to develop these proposals.

“We will engage with all market participants in this process, in order to ensure that Google is taking account of concerns and suggestions raised."

Google, which makes its money on ads, can’t eradicate data collection without an alternative – especially with CMA watching the Department of Justice already accusing the company of an advertising monopoly in a looming lawsuit.

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