Only bits and pieces of Google's post-third-party cookie plans have been made public as the clock ticks toward their 2022 expiration date. The company painted a clearer picture of its path forward March 3, announcing its abandonment of third-party cookies remains on schedule and that it does not intend to produce a cross-site tracking alternative while shifting to a privacy-focused first-party data model.
"We continue to get questions about whether Google will join others in the ad tech industry who plan to replace third-party cookies with alternative user-level identifiers," Google Director of Product Management for Ads Privacy and Trust David Temkin said in a news release. "Today, we’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products."
Temkin added Google believes solutions that use personal identifiers "aren’t a sustainable long-term investment," noting how those solutions will not "meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions."
Consumer privacy considerations focus mostly on trust. Temkin pointed to a 2019 privacy survey from the Pew Research Center that revealed 72% of 4,272 American respondents believe "all, almost all or most of what they do online" is being monitored by advertisers. In regard to advertising technology regulation, the EU has taken a hard stance on cookies through the EU General Data Protection Regulation and will potentially go further with the proposed ePrivacy Regulation, while the U.S. has provisions in the California Consumer Privacy Act and aspirations for other regulatory frameworks.
"Advertising is essential to keeping the web open for everyone, but the web ecosystem is at risk if privacy practices do not keep up with changing expectations," Temkin said in further comments to the IAPP. "People want assurances that their identity and information are safe as they browse the web."
Access Now U.S. Policy Manager and Global Policy Counsel Eric Null was pleased to learn of Google's change but said, "Unfortunately, adtech companies can 'fingerprint' a browser as a workaround to the third-party cookie ban, allowing those companies to continue targeting and identifying users."
Common Sense Media Policy Director Joe Jerome, CIPP/US, wasn't shocked by Google's move, noting the company will largely go unaffected given the large amount of first-party data it has amassed over time. On regulatory considerations, Jerome points out the changes shouldn't deter privacy law efforts and the inclusion of provisions concerning the adtech industry.
"These pro-privacy moves don't mean we don't need stronger and better-enforced data protection laws," Jerome said. "But for years, adtech wanted self-regulation. This is self-regulation. Just not the type they wanted."
On the advertising side, Network Advertising Initiative President & CEO Leigh Freund lauded Google and said her organization was working with the company "to build a privacy-first internet." However, Freund noted there needs to be a "level playing field" when it comes to potential shifts to first-party data solutions.
"Privacy is a shared commitment, but it should not be used as a barrier so that platforms or technology intermediaries hold all the data about online activities," Freund said in a public statement.
Ruling out a comparable alternative to third-party cookies comes easy for Google following the positive returns from its Privacy Sandbox on Federated Learning of Cohorts. The machine-learning analysis tool graded 95% as effective as third-party cookies in January trials while not using personally identifiable information to sort through data. Temkin noted "aggregation, anonymization, (and) on-device processing" offer "a clear path" to sustained success in the advertising space.
Despite the reported effectiveness in Google tests, Null isn't sold on the idea consumers are out of harm's way with FLoC in place.
"It's unclear why adtech wouldn't simply engage in both (FLoC and fingerprinting), continuing the privacy intrusion," Null said. "Further, to the extent FLoC shares any functions with Facebook's 'Look-alike Audiences' product, I am nervous that FLoC perpetuates discrimination in the same way that Upturn showed Look-alike Audiences did in 2019."
Google expects to begin testing FLoC with advertisers in Google Ads during quarter two, and new user controls from the Privacy Sandbox will launch in April.
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash
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