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Google Claps Back At IAB Criticism Of Privacy Sandbox, But Adtech Leaders Remain Skeptical

Google is pushing back against assertions made by the IAB Tech Lab about shortcomings of the search giant’s Privacy Sandbox initiative, the centerpiece of its cookie transition plan. Still, adtech industry stakeholders are eyeing Google’s proposed solution with scrutiny.

Nonprofit digital advertising consortium the IAB Tech Lab last week released a 106-page gap analysis report on Google Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox – the tech giant’s amalgam of APIs and tech designed to provide privacy-safe alternatives to tracking technology like the third-party cookie. The report details what the consortium sees as foundational problems with the initiative, including challenges with advertising effectiveness, media measurement, brand safety, governance and transparency.

The IAB Tech Lab also suggests that an industry-wide shift to the Sandbox would necessitate major infrastructural changes that would introduce undue hurdles for adtech firms, publishers and brand- and agency-side advertisers.

It also alleges that the Privacy Sandbox would severely inhibit most current forms of digital advertising. “Of the 44 basic digital advertising use cases analyzed by the IAB Tech Lab’s Privacy Sandbox Task Force over the past few months, only a small handful remain feasible using the APIs in the Google Chrome Privacy Sandbox,” the report reads.

Embracing the Privacy Sandbox in its current form, argues IAB chief executive Anthony Katsur, would ultimately result in enhanced consumer privacy at the serious detriment of digital advertising effectiveness. “How much advertising utility, publisher yield and potential publisher revenue degradation is worth it in order to absolutely lock down and ensure consumer privacy? There has to be some trade off here,” he tells The Drum “It is our opinion that the Sandbox skews way too far in the privacy arena to the detriment of advertising and utility for brands as well as publisher yield and publisher revenue.”

Today, Google has hit back with a 28-page response disputing what it sees as “many misunderstandings and inaccuracies” in the IAB Tech Lab report. In particular, the tech giant addresses technical concerns flagged by the nonprofit and implications for programmatic advertising.

Google aims to set the record straight

For one, Google’s retort aims to correct specific assertions in the IAB Tech Lab report about use case gaps supported by Privacy Sandbox APIs. The IAB Tech Lab alleges, for example, that a loss of runtime data under Privacy Sandbox may result in brand safety issues; Google counters that media buyers will still have access to the URL of the page in an ad request, as they currently do.

Google picks apart many of the digital advertising use cases explored in the IAB Tech Lab report and says that many such use cases are actually supported by Privacy Sandbox – and that those that aren’t supported are being dialed back in favor of enhanced consumer privacy.

Google pokes holes in some IAB Tech Lab criticisms by pointing out that some of the use cases flagged as being unsupported under the Privacy Sandbox – like Google Interest Groups that operate across sites but don’t span across devices – are also unsupported by third-party cookies.

Google suggests that the IAB Tech Lab, in some cases, appears to be demanding from Privacy Sandbox more granular and cross-site tracking capabilities – requests that Google says fundamentally go against its privacy goals. Google’s aim in developing new Privacy Sandbox technologies, it emphasizes, is not to perfectly replicate the capabilities of the third-party cookie, which the browser has started to deprecate, beginning with 1% of global users last month.

A misunderstanding of Google’s fundamental goals – not to replace the cookie but to provide privacy-safe solutions to developers and advertisers – seems evident in IAB Tech Lab’s initial report, according to Katie Cladis, vice-president of product at performance marketing firm Digital Remedy. “The focus of the IAB’s report was on replicating existing processes, whereas Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative is focused on replacing existing processes with a focus on achieving similar business outcomes.”

In response to the IAB Tech Lab, Google also highlights specific areas where it says adtech providers should build out their own capabilities – like lookalike modeling – on top of the Privacy Sandbox, rather than demanding that they be built into the Sandbox’s existing APIs. It points to its Private Aggregation API, for instance, where users can find insights on the aggregate behavior of a seed audience.

The back-and-forth between Google and the IAB Tech Lab over Privacy Sandbox solutions may have been exacerbated by a resistance to collaborate, in Cladis’ estimation. “If the IAB had involved Google at the start rather than excluding them, the initiative would have benefitted not only by having the source of feedback as close as possible, but also to align on what actions can be taken,” she says.

In its report today, Google says it will “welcome continued collaboration with the IAB Tech Lab, and support their call to action for companies to start testing the Privacy Sandbox APIs and share feedback on how the Privacy Sandbox technologies can be improved now and in the future.”

And despite its criticisms of Privacy Sandbox, the IAB Tech Lab, too, is willing to work with Google to help develop effective solutions that meet the demands of both consumer privacy and advertising effectiveness.

“The primary objective of the Privacy Sandbox Fit Gap Analysis was to ignite awareness and action within the industry regarding the challenges presented by Google’s Privacy Sandbox and initiate a meaningful dialogue with the Chrome team and the digital ad ecosystem,“ said Tech Lab’s Katsur in a statement shared with The Drum. “Chrome and the wider industry’s feedback will serve as a foundation for collaborative efforts, ensuring the diverse needs of all involved parties, publishers, brands, and consumers are met.”

Adtech industry eyes Privacy Sandbox with wariness

Despite Google’s thorough response to the IAB Tech Lab, some media and adtech industry players remain skeptical about Privacy Sandbox readiness – and viability as an avenue for the future of digital advertising.

“The Google Privacy Sandbox is complicated and not ready for prime time,” says Ken Weiner, chief technology officer at contextual advertising firm GumGum. “Large paradigm shifts like this are only successful if a majority of the industry adopts it at the same time, and I can’t recall a moment in the history of ad tech that we can point to where this has successfully happened.”

Various “less ambitious” ecosystem-wide initiatives, Weiner says, like Seller Defined Audiences, DigiTrust, OpenRTB 3.0, and Buyers.json all flopped – indicating that Google has its work cut out for it should it want to achieve large-scale adoption.

At a foundational level, Weiner also sees a number of limitations. For one, Privacy Sandbox is designed explicitly for Chrome. “The focus on a Chrome-centric model underestimates the complexity and necessity for an approach that supports interoperability across the digital ecosystem,” he says. Further, in his estimation, the Privacy Sandbox’s proposed solutions for ad targeting and measurement are likely to come under scrutiny just like the third-party cookie “because they teeter a fine line with personal data.”

Others agree that Privacy Sandbox is unlikely to answer all of adtech’s prayers. “What advertisers really need is the ability to reach their audiences with relevant content. Without the cookie, relevance, sentiment and attention are just some of the indicators advertisers will use going forward to conduct effective open web advertising. They don’t need the Privacy Sandbox to meet those goals,” says Dave Hills, chief executive officer at adtech company Advanced Contextual.

In Hills’ telling, Privacy Sandbox is Google’s self-serving solution to reinforce its outsized place in the digital advertising ecosystem. “Google is not incentivized to maintain the efficacy of open web advertising. Google is ushering advertisers toward its black-box techniques and products such as broad match and Performance Max. It is more effective for Google … to use its large store of first-party data, massive digital properties and proprietary tools to become a one-stop shop for digital advertising.”

But where Weiner and Hill see hope in contextual approaches, some adtech leaders say that any approach in the cookie’s absence will leave gaps.

“No matter the intentions of the Privacy Sandbox, Apple or others looking to change the ecosystem, there will be use cases for advertisers and publishers that aren’t solved by any one proposed solution,” says Adam Berkowitz, chief of staff at LiveIntent, an email marketing and adtech company.

But at the end of the day, even the Tech Lab’s Katsur admits he’s not jealous of the monumental task facing Google today. “The Privacy Sandbox team has the hardest job in the industry right now,” he says. “The spirit of what they’re trying to accomplish is bold. It’s ambitious. The execution has flopped. But what they aspire to do I think has merit.”

Google says it will move forward with its plans to sunset third-party cookies late this year, barring additional challenges from the UK’s antitrust regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority, which is currently examining competition concerns involved in cookie deprecation on Chrome.

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