James Rosewell, director of Marketers for an Open Web (MOW), a “group of newspaper publishers and technology companies” that deliver combined 320bn advertising impressions each year, is driving an anti-trust complaint in the UK against Google. Here, he outlines the group’s leading concerns regarding the Privacy Sandbox.
Google’s Privacy Sandbox remains a mystery to all but the most dedicated followers of web technology but it is potentially one of the biggest changes to hit digital advertising since the invention of the cookie. It is neither a ’sandbox’ or improving ’privacy’.
Announced in August 2019, the Privacy Sandbox is a group of 23 proposed technical changes to Google’s Chrome browser and the Chromium software that underpins many competitors’ browsers, including Microsoft, Opera and Samsung. These browsers account for more than 70% of web usage so any changes will have far-reaching impact. So what exactly are they?
The one that has drawn the most attention is the move to block the use of third-party cookies, which alone would have a seismic impact on the digital advertising industry unless operational alternatives are available. But the Sandbox changes encompass far more.
For example, WebID would give Google greater control over website logins to the detriment of the publishers that rely on their direct relationship with logged-in users. Removing User Agent strings would limit website owners’ ability to customise content, damaging user experience and therefore reducing engagement.
The common thread is the removal of existing, open and interoperable standards and their replacement with inferior alternatives. Google, which has near-universal consent and privileged status as the dominant browser, will not be impaired in any way by these changes.
Google has made much of collaboration at web standards body, the W3C. But, when you consider that Google has in excess of 100 representatives at the W3C and that the W3C discriminates against the advertising industry, that collaboration is illusory.
The impact of these changes is twofold. Firstly, independent adtech providers, publishers and agencies will lose access to some of the key data that powers their businesses while Google will lose nothing. Without an interoperable identifier, a direct logged-in relationship or even the ability to adapt content to specific users and devices, publishers and advertisers will suddenly be shorn of many of of the tools that they use to deliver effective content and advertising.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Google, through its massive consumer reach, will retain all of this information and more, creating an entirely unbalanced marketplace in which it will be nigh on impossible to compete.
This issue is urgent and needs to be addressed now.
The tides of regulatory change have turned and there are currently active investigations into the actions of the tech giants being undertaken by government regulators in the UK, the US and Europe. But the wheels of regulation turn slowly and, should Google implement the Sandbox before these investigations are complete, then its technological advantage will be irreversibly locked in, whatever the regulators and governments decide.
In December last year a group of publishers, advertisers, adtech companies and technology businesses got together to start a campaign calling for a delay to the introduction of Privacy Sandbox until regulators have ruled on its status. That group, Marketers for an Open Web, filed a complaint with the UK’s Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA), which launched a formal investigation.
The CMA is looking for input from the industry to help it decide whether Sandbox is, as Google would argue, a consumer privacy enhancement or, as MOW argues, an unashamed attempt to cement its monopolistic dominance at a browser level. MOW is structured to allow companies to participate anonymously, enabling them to contribute their views free of the fear of retribution that has held many back until now.
This isn’t an attempt to fight against privacy, or to block a competitor’s technological advances. MOW is not campaigning in support of the cookie or any other technology specifically, but of the right for companies to agree their own, open, interoperable standards.
All that MOW and its members are asking is to give elected governments and their agencies the time to decide whether they believe that Google’s changes are best for their countries’ citizens. For too long a handful of trillion-dollar companies operating an oligopoly have been able to act with impunity – that time is ending and it is only right that these decisions should be made on the terms decided by democratically-elected representatives, not by monopolistically-minded executives.
James Rosewell is the director of Marketers for an Open Web