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Google outlines privacy change for Android ad tracking: A feckless fig-leaf?

Google outlines privacy change for Android ad tracking: A feckless fig-leaf?

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Google is rolling out a multi-year initiative to introduce more privacy ad solutions on Android which will limit sharing user data with third parties and operating without cross-app identifiers, including advertising ID which is a unique, user-resettable ID for advertising.

The tech giant is also exploring technologies that will reduce the potential for covert data collection, including safer ways for apps to integrate with advertising SDKs.

Google plans to support existing ads platform features for at least two years, Anthony Chavez, VP, product management, Android security and privacy, said in a blog post. The company will also provide "substantial notice" ahead of any future changes.

Google is following in the footsteps of Apple which rolled out the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) on iOS 14 last April. The IDFA impacted Meta, wiping US$232 billion from the company's market value, media outlets including The Wall Street Journal and CNBC reported. According to WSJ, this was the "biggest one-day decline" for stock in US history and was based on a weaker-than-expected revenue forecast. 

Meta previously criticised Apple for IDFA, saying that it disagreed with the latter's approach and solution. However, it decided to comply with Apple's privacy settings and show the prompt to gain users' permission in obtaining their data. Meta explained in a post that Apple would block Facebook from the App Store if it did not comply and that such an act would "only further harm" users and businesses.

This time, Google also called out Apple albeit discreetly. "We realise that other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers. We believe that — without first providing a privacy-preserving alternative path — such approaches can be ineffective and lead to worse outcomes for user privacy and developer businesses," Chavez said.

Meanwhile, Graham Mudd, Facebook's VP of product marketing, voiced support for Google's plan. He tweeted that it is encouraging to see this long-term, collaborative approach to privacy-protective personalised advertising from Google. "We look forward to continued work with them and the industry on privacy-enhancing tech through industry groups," he added.

A feckless fig-leaf?

Some might argue that Google is late to the game when it comes to implementing privacy restrictions. Mike Woosley, Lotame's COO, said Google has been "a giant half-step behind Apple" on privacy lockdowns every step of the way, whether it be the removal of third-party cookies or the lock-down of the mobile phone’s advertising ID. With third party cookies, this latency is more than three years.

Nonetheless, the cover of "consumer privacy", when it comes to ID technology, should always be viewed with cynicism and suspicion, Woosley said. He explained that almost all laws and regulations around privacy allow the media and marketing industry to apply identity tools when consumers receive transparency and give consent. "The removal of these tools make functional execution impossible, except via the use and grace of those same dominant platforms," Woosley added.

In another privacy push, Google unveiled Topics last month, replacing its previous Federated Learning of Cohorts proposal. Topics enables browsers to determine a handful of topics, such as "fitness" or "travel and transportation", that represent consumers' top interests for that week based on their browsing. They are also only kept for three weeks and old topics are deleted.

The provision of alternate utilities such as Topics only emphasises that the tech giant can easily draw data synthesised from independent publisher traffic and avail it across domains, Woosley said. He added:

The tools themselves are weak, chaotic in application, and provide limited industry complexity or control.

Woosley explained that the real impact of those tools is to "serve as a feckless fig-leaf" allowing those same dominant players to make a claim that they’re doing their level best and that it is actually those industry regulators and overseers who are the real villains.

Overall, Woosley said the need to use identity in marketing, which is critical for nearly all modern marketing, is not an issue for the dominant players. Instead, these changes mainly affect the rest of the digital media industry, including Facebook which expects its revenue to be impacted this year. Meta's CFO Dave Wehner said during a recent financial call that the impact of iOS overall is a headwind to its business this year. "It’s on the order of US$10 billion, so it’s a pretty significant headwind for our business," he added.

"I think what the industry needs to pay attention to is that Apple and Google have an authenticated relationship with you. These companies ever and always know who you are while you are using their products," he said. 

While the writing is on the wall for the targeted ad industry, it remains to be seen how Google's proposed changes will come together. According to Tammy Parker, principal analyst at data and analytics company, GlobalData, this is especially as Google tries to delicately balance privacy demands with the needs of advertisers, which drive its advertising-based business model.

While Google is not adopting a "scorched-earth approach" with its privacy efforts like Apple, Parker said the former's pledge to support existing ads platform features for at least two years may be too long for some privacy advocates.

According to her, Google’s efforts to have its cake and eat it too by improving both mobile and web privacy while seeking to enable advertisers, publishers, developers and others to continue engaging in limited though apparently still targeted advertising, could end up pleasing no one. "Privacy advocates [are] likely to cast a raised eyebrow at any advertising solutions deemed to fall short of protecting consumers," she added.

Less of an impact compared to Apple's move

While Google is indeed following in Apple's footsteps, Serm Teck Choon, co-founder and CEO of Antsomi, does not foresee Google's Privacy Sandbox to impact the ad industry as drastically as Apple's App Tracking Transparency framework. The main revenue of Google's parent company, Alphabet, still comes from advertising. In fact, Alphabet's ad revenue for Q4 2021 was US$61.23 billion, up from US$46.19 billion the same period last year. Google Search took home the lion's share (US$43.30 billion) followed by Google Network (US$9.3 billion) and YouTube ads (US$8.63 billion).

With its vested interest, Serm explained that Google will definitely strike the balance between its business model and regulation or antitrust while working out the initiative’s final version. "The final outcome is still unclear as the key items such as Topics API that enable interest-based ads personalisation without relying on user-level identifiers are still at their design proposal stage," he added.

Nonetheless, he is not surprised to see Google making this move and pointed out what whatever is and will be implemented on Apple iOS and Google Android will have an impact on the industry as these two platforms "conquer the mobile world". "Having said that, that also explains why Facebook is so eager to build its metaverse in hopes that it can create another new platform in the future of digital, and it does not need to rely on other platforms," he said.

Photo courtesy: 123RF

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Google's new substitute for cookies: What do Topics spell for the industry?
Analysis: Will Google's FLoC proposal be yet another walled garden?
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Analysis: ID that binds the industry: Impact of iOS 14 privacy efforts on brands

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