Google’s Privacy Sandbox – What Should You Expect?

What’s Going On?

If you haven’t already read our previous article outlining Apple’s latest iOS 14 announcement and the subsequent impact Facebook advertisers are bracing for, we recommend you check it out here.

In terms of impact, Google – for the time being – won’t be placed in as fragile of a position as social media apps, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. They’ve noted that when Apple’s ATT (App Tracking Transparency) policy rolls out, any information forbidden by the policy will be excluded from the small portion of their apps that are currently using it. Because of this, there will be no reason to show the ATT opt-in prompt that other apps will need to show. Or at least, that’s Google’s logic (Facebook made the same attempt and was forced to renounce the claim).

With this said, Google isn’t exempt from web data-loss, and has been vocal about their expectation that the small glimpse of push for data privacy is actually a foreshadowing of a new advertiser/consumer ecosystem we’ll see in the future. Because of this, Google has taken a somewhat more proactive approach to iOS 14’s murky tidal wave – and has been working to position itself as a primary leader in supporting consumers’ momentum towards a more secure and transparent internet experience.

Google: The Digital Mediator?

Earlier last year, Google introduced plans for their new Privacy Sandbox – the first step in Google’s journey to replacing third-party cookies with other machine-learned identifiers, such as common interest groups, by 2022. 

Google refers to these common groups efforts as the Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC, whereby users are grouped together by ‘online behavior’, and the behaviors of groups – not of individuals – are studied and targeted. If you’re curious about the meaning of the phrase ‘online behavior’, you may read more here, but in short, the thinking is that the cohort – or group – is dynamically assigned to the user by the browser, and is formed from machine learning of that user’s behavior. A Javascript API allows only this value to be passed back to websites (see example below), without revealing other personal information belonging to the user.

In recent tests of the new product, Google has determined that – on average – advertisers would be seeing “at least 95% of the conversions per dollar spent when compared to cookie-based advertising” (Ads and Commerce Blog). And, FLoC isn’t the only technology being developed in Google’s Privacy Sandbox; the proposed plan consists of other middle-of-the-road solutions designed to retain advertisers’ capabilities while appeasing internet users’ increasing demand for online privacy. Other aspects of Privacy Sandbox consist of technologies like FLEDGE – or First ‘Locally-Executed Decision over Groups’ Experiment – a developing attempt at a “Bring your own Server” model, new conversion event tracking that isn’t reliant on cookies, but on machine-learned patterns and cumulative group data, an improved method of testing for fraudulent traffic without invasive tracking, and more.

But despite their attempt to strike a fair middle ground between consumers and advertiser, neither side is completely sold on Google’s integrity with the move. Already, a handful of antitrust lawsuits and investigations have been waged against the platform, with the overwhelming concern being that the notion of  “privacy” could be a red-herring, and Google’s primary motive could be to manipulate advertisers into shifting more ad dollars into the channel.

What’s Next?

Many of the above Privacy Sandbox technologies are still being developed, tested, and/or awaiting community feedback. However, if you’re interested in testing these developments yourself, instructions for application can be found here.

Aside from that, we can confidently say we don’t know what’s next. Privacy Sandbox is still in development and awaiting feedback from critics, supporters, and legal alike. If you’d like to stay on top of the latest, it’s probably best to follow us for weekly updates (wink wink!)

The Bottom Line

Google’s decision to pursue and invest in privacy-first technologies should be a flag to all of us – advertisers, developers, brands and consumers alike – that the web ecosystem as we knew it is changing, and rapidly. But, the question is: can we make the outcome of this conflict non-zero-sum?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a popular game theory in which two prisoners are given the option to betray the other in exchange for their own freedom and a long sentence for the betrayed, or to stay silent where – if collectively neither betray the other – the sum of prison time is less than the longer sentence in the above scenario. 

In other words, there is an incentive for each party to act in self-interest, despite the fact that in helping oneself, the total harm done across parties increases – in the case of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, this is the total prison years sentenced.

A similar approach can be considered in the war on internet privacy – if the outcome completely favors either side, the entire infrastructure crumbles. Without proper targeting, ad dollars dry up, sites become gated and non-free. Without a sense of security, consumers stop using platforms, and audiences diminish leaving granular targeting virtually useless.

An equilibrium is needed to preserve the total interest of all parties. But a true equilibrium; not one that is feigned for self-profit. And what do we do when a majority have mistrust in an involved party?


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