The “Privacy Sandbox” project for Google’s web browser Chrome has been in the works for several years now, promising to bring an end to ad tracking cookies while preserving targeted digital advertising. Google recently announced that this initiative is now also being rolled out for Android, in a move comparable to the privacy changes made by Apple in 2021.
“Comparable” is the key word, however, as Google is also positioning this initiative as a “less blunt” and “more effective” alternative to Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) approach. Specifically, Google has said that limitations will be placed on tracking automatically instead of asking users to opt in to each app. The initiative will also take at least two years to put in place.
Google tries to walk tightrope between ad tracking business and increasing market demand for privacy
The centerpiece of Apple’s privacy changes is a mandatory prompt to opt in to ad tracking when an app is downloaded or updated. Without that permission, the unique device tracking ID cannot be used. Google appears to be following a different path; a blog post on the subject suggests that the company is looking to eliminate cross-app identifiers entirely.
This lines up with the goals it set for the ongoing Chrome browser project, in which it is looking to eliminate tracking cookies. The centerpiece of that project was going to be the “Federated Learning of Cohorts” (FLoC) system, which would group users together by interest and keep that categorization at the browser end. Google dropped this idea just a month ago, however, after widespread complaints and concerns that it could wind up being even more invasive than the current system. It pivoted to a system it calls “Topics API” but did not provide much detail; the planned elimination of cookies from Chrome by 2023 is also potentially being pushed back due to the change.
The initial blog post about the Android plan was similarly short on details, devoting more space to criticizing the “blunt restriction” of other companies and promising testing of “alternate solutions” with some sort of plan coming together by 2024 at the earliest. Until then, Google says that existing ad tracking technologies will continue to be supported.
Google is making its initial design proposals for the privacy changes available on the Android developer site and is asking for input from the ad industry and regulators. It is also releasing developer previews throughout 2022 and aiming for a beta release at the end of the year.
How Google’s privacy changes can “limit sharing” with third parties while preserving ad business
Whatever privacy changes Google ultimately settles on will most likely not have a strong impact on the company’s own ad tracking business, which is largely centered on its search product. The key question is how it will impact other major players in the ad tracking space. No third-party name is bigger (or more reliant) on ad tracking than Meta (Facebook), which recently revealed that it is projecting a $10 billion loss for 2022 due to Apple’s privacy changes.
Like Apple, Google also faces antitrust charges if it appears to be favoring its own product over competitors. The two companies have the unique position of collectively owning the entire mobile device operating system market in many countries, which opens them both up to lawsuits and scrutiny from regulators. That would seem to preclude Google from shutting out third parties, or forcing them into its ecosystem.
The Android developer site currently expands on the Topics concepts a bit, describing an interest-based system that sounds similar to the privacy changes outlined in the previous FLoC project. One of the changes is that only the top five user interests for a particular time period (potentially one week) will be used; these recorded interests are forgotten for the next time period. The initial proposal indicates that there will be “a few hundred to a few thousand” topics that a user can be assigned to; it does not directly address one of the key criticisms of FLoC, which was that users could be assigned to categories that would reveal sensitive personal information about them.
A new technology called “FLEDGE” is also among the proposed privacy changes outlined, promising customized ads without the use of third-party ad tracking. FLEDGE appears to be related to established relationships in which a customer has already engaged with a retailer, for example putting items in a shopping cart but failing to complete the purchase. The system would put the user on an “audience list” for that particular store, something that ads on other apps and sites could draw on without passing information about individual identities on.