Google announced this last week on their blog and called it an ‘initiative’, which sounds vague, but could still be the real deal.
The reason as to why I am questioning the ‘realness’ of this initiative is that since May 2018, big tech have been consistently flexing their privacy muscles while not necessarily delivering anything of value. Privacy Sandbox hits some of the right notes, though:
They highlight the problem with how we currently block cookies, in that it simply becomes an arms race. If consumers are consistently blocking all cookies, companies will just find other ways to track you such as device fingerprinting. This is because all browsers see all cookies as the same — the ones you actually need are inseparable to the ones that are just there to track you and serve ads.
Google’s proposal: there should be a standard way of categorising cookies at a browser level.
They also mention how large scale cookie-blocking effects advertising, and how this in turn is detrimental to publishers, who make most of their money from ads. Google spin this as an unfortunate cut of funding to publishers. They quote a study which found that without personalised ads, more than half of that funding then gets cut. They may have overlooked this other study which finds that behavioural ads only make 4% more revenue than regular ads, but are three times as expensive.
Google’s proposal: is to keep ads relevant but instead use anonymised information, and keep more data restricted to devices, instead of shared all over the place. This recalls of their feelings around federated learning — something they champion heavily, but still do not really use…?
Privacy Sandbox: Google’s initiative for a more private web standard
So in short Google are saying that they want to — and others should strive to — start building a new web standard. Better cookie categorisation, user data decentralised to devices, and a different approach to personalised ads.
The general ideas are good: cookies should be dealt with in more detail at a browser level — people should not rely on shoddy browser extensions for this. Cookie management should be easier and more transparent and putting those controls in-browser makes a lot of sense. Putting restrictions on fingerprinting in Chrome also sounds like a slam-dunk.
Their ideas around advertising are not very radical, but that’s because Google make a very large amount of money out of them — why would they want to change that? If anyone can find a way of still serving ‘relevant’ ads while still maintaining user privacy, it’s Google. The question is, will they?
What’s more they’ve marked Privacy Sandbox as an initiative and have highlighted how there’s years of work and research to do before anything changes, because ‘developing web standards is a complex process’. Indeed it is, but that’s perfect for them, because it means they do not necessarily have to move fast, or do much at all.