Google Moves Toward New User Tracking Standards

The future of the user tracking landscape for ad tech companies was supposed to be cleared up this year between more experience with Apple’s App Tracking Transparency Framework and preparations for the planned phase-out of third-party cookies. by Google. Predictions of such consistency in 2022 have not materialized in part due to some privacy changes by Google.

The company gave the adtech community a few curveballs in a matter of weeks in early 2022. First, there was the January announcement that Google was abandoning its cookie replacement, Federated Learning of Cohorts, and moving to l forward with a new alternative approach called “Topics”, ahead of the 2023 cookie deadline. This change set the stage for an early February announcement with details of Google’s plan to end cross-app tracking on Android devices by 2024.

Working to a company’s advantage on these two fronts are grace periods and the ability to provide feedback – for better or worse – on everything Google does. The downsides continue to be uncertainty over whether these moves will hold and which companies are losing out on the reshuffle.

“The problem is there’s going to be a lot of business being left behind, and the lack of clarity means more regulatory risk and a high price for regulatory compliance, which is going to hurt many small and medium-sized businesses that don’t ‘don’t have the margins to explain the constant zigzag of developments,’ Kelley Drye & Warren Partner Alysa Hutnik, CIPP/US, said.

Presentation of the “Subjects”

There were signs that FLoC was having trouble when Google announced in June 2021 that its plans for a 2022 cookie phase-out were being pushed back a year. The company renamed it had “become clear that it takes longer across the ecosystem to get it right”. What was missing then was what the exact hangups were with FLoC, a machine learning-based concept that grouped users based on their common browsing behavior.

“We heard loud and clear from the market that (FLoC’s approach) was still re-identifying users and that the system would be really difficult for users to understand in the first place,” said Ari Levenfeld, senior director of government affairs. and Google’s public policies, noting that Topics is designed for the same advertising use cases as FLoC.

The current concept of Topics closely follows its name as users are assigned to topic categories via an algorithm embedded in a given device that reads the content of a webpage. User Site History generates a weekly report of a handful of “top topics”, which users can view, delete, or disable. With Google’s privacy measures and the additional rotating “noise” attached, a user’s browser shares a limited set of main topics with advertisers. These topics can then be used to serve ads.

Levenfeld made it clear that the number of topics produced was a few hundred in total for users to categorize, would reduce user profiling and the ability to group users into sensitive categories.

“The browser will assign categories to users, but no personal information is used beyond what is made available,” Levenfeld said. “This is one of the challenges the Chrome team has really had to deal with over the past year. The solution to all of this is to keep all calculations on a user’s device so that no one gets this information, including Google.

Another area of ​​friction that Google received feedback on was the layout and accessibility of user controls. Levenfeld said concerns had been raised that the mechanics were not “fleshed out enough”. With so much going on about clear user opt-out capabilities with cookie banners, especially in the EU, it was important for Google to up the ante with simplified mechanisms.

“They need to be intelligible to really matter to users,” Levenfeld said. “The idea is to make the user understand what is happening and make their choices immediately accessible. »

A developer trial of Topics and its user controls will roll out to Chrome this spring, according to Levenfeld.

expect the unexpected

Google’s recognition that an alternative to cookies required more thought and later replacement was not just a company decision. As Levenfeld alluded to, industry players’ perspective on the lack of workability presented by FLoC was a driving force behind the shift to topics.

“The digital advertising industry is at a critical juncture, and collaboration among stakeholders will result in the best outcomes for consumers and businesses,” said David LeDuc, vice president of public policy at the Network Advertising Initiative. “Google’s announcement that it will move from FLoC to Topics represents an ongoing effort to support a range of viable, consumer-focused technologies to enable data-driven advertising. »

From a preparedness perspective, it’s unclear how far companies have gone with plans to adapt to a FLoC-based ecosystem. Some companies haven’t waited for Google’s solution and have opted for their own cookie alternatives, some with privacy-preserving techniques and others that continue similar user-tracking tactics that the industry has adopted. is used to.

“I expect we will continue to see an evolution of options that will have ripple effects for everyone in the industry, which underscores the difficulty of planning a forward-looking digital advertising strategy” , Hutnik said. “Brands, publishers and everyone in between are all betting on what the future of digital advertising looks like and how it is shaped by changes in privacy and data protection law. competition, as well as business innovations and disruptors. »

Levenfeld said Google never considered deleting cookies without an alternative. This line of thinking was related to the potential proliferation of user tracking approaches that may not meet Google’s envisioned standard of privacy on the web. It’s unclear at this point whether the non-Google solutions are the start of an ill-advised wave or just a case-by-case solution until the next ad space user tracking conundrum.

“I think businesses of all sizes should now assess the various arrows that exist in the expanding quiver of post-cookie advertising practices,” said Darren Abernethy, shareholder of Greenberg Traurig, CIPP/A, CIPP/C, CIPP/ E, CIPP/G, CIPP/US, CIPM, CIPT, FIP, PLS. “The data, environments and objectives of each company are different and therefore require a tailor-made legal approach. Currently, there is no single panacea, but innovation is on the way. »

Sandbox for Android: a prelude to Google’s own ATT?

Potentially more impactful than the cookie deprecation is Google’s decision to apply Privacy Sandbox to Android devices. While the announcement seemed sudden, the conversation around cookies and some subtle transparency initiatives from previous months finally laid the groundwork for Google to begin the Android change.

The first foreshadowing came in May 2021 when the Google Play Store rolled out a security section that disclosed how app developers collect, use and store user data. The next shoe to fall was increased ad tracking protections, a presumed response to Apple’s ATT rollout.

“The sandbox principles are the same on Android as they are on Chrome,” Levenfeld said. “There are other technologies that we will need to develop specifically for Android that will limit companies’ abilities to covertly track users and share information with third parties. The construction of this technology will really reduce fingerprints. »

Levenfeld said it would have been easy to follow Apple’s lead on reducing cross-app tracking, but Google’s approach contains important differences. Sandboxing on Android will involve emphases on innovation and collaboration that Apple’s TCA would not carry as the adoption timeline seeks to support members of the ecosystem.

Digital Content Next CEO Jason Kint isn’t so sure Google’s meticulous approach will be an improvement over ATT.

“Apple’s ATT gives users a simple choice not to be tracked across apps from different companies by using a clear definition of tracking and a persistent opt-out that Google has fought for many years,” Kint said. “Although Facebook has done a good job of trying to confuse everyone about this, Apple itself follows the same rules as all other apps. If you think Google will also follow Apple’s lead and limit its own ability to track users across the app ecosystem despite the dominant browser and operating system, then I have an NFT in the Metaverse at sell you.

Google’s commitment to collaboration on the Android initiative could be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, engaging relevant stakeholders will help Google find a path that addresses all concerns and ensures that Sandbox includes solutions for all adtech players. These consultations could also lead to a watered down product that responds to companies where they are rather than meeting halfway on a balance between user privacy and maintaining business models.

NAI President and CEO Leigh Freund praised the concept of collaboration in a “rich and diverse digital marketplace.

“New technologies and approaches must embrace and enhance competition, not diminish it,” Freund said in a public statement. “Consumers and the advertising industry will benefit from solutions that address a variety of platforms, rather than just having conversations siled on specific platforms or limiting discussion to ‘third-party’ data. All companies that collect or process consumer data, regardless of their position in the market, must be responsible stewards of that data. »

Hutnik is also a proponent of this collaborative approach, believing it was inevitable and necessary given that any substantial change would have to consider a range of groups, including marketing, product, infosecurity and legal teams within of an affected business.

“It’s clear that there’s a lot of investment and thought capital going right now into new ways to do effective advertising and measures that are more respectful of privacy and security,” said said Hutnik. “Some options include less or no personal data, but even options that involve personal data are considered in the context of much greater data security, data minimization and measures to account for a clean supply chain. »

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