The world of online advertising was shaken up when one half of the mobile market, Apple, placed tight restrictions on the use of third-party cookies starting in April 2021. As the marketing industry still fully looks to come to terms with this change, the other half of the market is set to be disrupted by the Google Privacy Sandbox initiative.
Google has made the timeline for the deprecation of third-party cookies more clear, saying that 1% of Chrome users will be switched to the new system in the first quarter of 2024. A full transfer to the Privacy Sandbox framework for all users remains planned for late 2024.
Privacy sandbox looks to force some major changes in online advertising programs
Privacy Sandbox is Google’s answer to increasing consumer frustration with tracking cookies and the amount of personal information that online advertising harvests, promising a more private and secure system that does not share some highly sensitive types of personal data and that does much of the targeted ad processing on the user’s own device (to cut third-party cookies and outflow to “data brokers” out of the equation).
The project has also had an extremely long timeline, with development spanning from early 2021 to present. The first major component that Google is targeting for widespread release, the elimination of third-party cookies in its Chrome browser, is now shaping up to become a reality in 2024.
Google says that 2024 will open with about 1% of Chrome users being migrated to the Privacy Sandbox system. Ideally, all Chrome users will follow sometime in the latter half of the year. Chrome 115, which is scheduled for a July release, will include the Privacy Sandbox relevance and measurement APIs for developers to begin testing.
The idea of the initial small sample size is to allow developers at least a few months to test and prepare for the broad Privacy Sandbox rollout later in the year. There is no guarantee that 2024 will mark an end to third-party cookies for the online advertising industry, however; Google has already pushed this deadline back twice, in both 2021 and 2022, and ultimately the broader Privacy Sandbox implementation beyond Chrome is still up in the air.
Third-party cookies likely still have some years of life left
The death of third-party cookies is likely still a long way off, and not just due to Google’s repeated scheduling misfires. The Privacy Sandbox plan has already been questioned by regulators that believe it may give Google an unfair competitive advantage. Privacy advocates are not entirely enthused with it either, questioning how much less websites and apps will actually know about users and whether it can viably be defended from “black hat” elements of online advertising that will find ways to work around its data anonymization.
Just as some in online advertising believe that Apple’s true purpose for its App Tracking Transparency framework is ultimately to bolster its own ad program, there are assertions that Google wants to use Privacy Sandbox to hide ad metrics from competitors. Some also simply believe that it is inherently inferior to third-party cookies and will bring with it an inevitable revenue drop for targeted advertising.
It remains to be seen if Google can reconcile the concerns of these two opposite poles to a degree that promotes voluntary adoption by other web browsers, the key to the whole plan being more than just a Chrome-specific gimmick. At the moment Google seems closer to pleasing privacy advocates than the online advertising world, which is already lodging bitter complaints about how the announced APIs negatively impact the impression bidding process. However, unlike Apple, Google does not have a strong hardware market that can carry it. Its Pixel phone line has experienced a solid couple of years recently and is growing, but is still a tiny drop in the bucket compared to its AdSense, search and YouTube advertising money, all of which relies on tracking.
Google insists that Privacy Sandbox is designed to satisfy both online advertising and privacy concerns, but resistance is substantial thus far. Earlier this year the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an extremely influential body in implementing web standards, formally rejected the “Topics API” that is set to be released for early testing in July. The API is meant to grant users a layer of anonymity by using their activity over the prior three weeks to place them in interest cohorts that online advertising is directed at, but W3C found that it was still possible for third parties to discern individual identities from the system.
Third-party cookies are already blocked by a number of major browsers, including Firefox and Brave, but what Chrome does has heavy influence on the web in general as it is estimated to hold over 65% of the global market. Only about 15% of PC and Android/ChromeOS device users make use of a different browser to surf the web, even with Microsoft’s Edge pre-installed (and heavily pushed) on Windows systems.