Google’s outline last week about its preferred path to what it calls a privacy-first web – basically how it views the world once it stops supporting 3rd party cookies – has drawn criticism and cynicism in some quarters, while others see it simply as confirmation of the search giant’s new way of thinking.

For instance, Gai Le Roy the CEO of the Australian chapter of the Internet Advertising Bureau is in the latter camp. She told Which-50, “The announcement from Google confirms that once Chrome blocks the use of third-party cookies, the only approach Google will enable for the targeting and measurement of digital ads that are not via consensual first-party data [are those]  only to be executed using anonymized audience cohorts via the Privacy Sandbox.

She said this builds on Google’s previous announcements that it will not support third-party cookies in Chrome, and clarifies that it will not look at building an identity alternative itself, nor support other identity solutions.

“First-party relationships with consumers remain intact,” she said.

According to Le Roy, “This announcement along with Apple’s privacy moves means that for digital advertising there will be more fragmented groups of people in terms of targeting and measurement with less glue to understand cross-site activity. We will increasingly see the term “cohort” referenced in the market with the ability to target groups of users based on behaviour rather than addressable individuals”

Adele Wieser, Regional Managing Director, APAC at Index Exchange meanwhile said

“Google’s announcement has a direct effect on every aspect of the advertising ecosystem from vendors, to publishers, and consumers. We know that third-party cookies were imperfect, and the need for creating a new system of advertising that is privacy-centric, consumer-focused, and more effective is more critical than ever to the success of our industry.”

“That’s why we are continuing to collaborate with industry players and find replacements for the third-party cookie that help improve customer privacy protections.”

Publishers need options, Wieser argues – although Google and Facebook’s combined 80 per cent market might suggest otherwise. (That’s our view, not Wieser’s). “Participation and collaboration by independent companies like Index Exchange is crucial, and we believe that there is a future where independent players and publishers can thrive. This is what the open industry at large, should remain focused on.”

Consumer resistance

In a company blog, Google’s David Tempkin, the director of product management says consumers shouldn’t have to accept being tracked across the web in order to get the benefits of relevant advertising.  “And, ” he writes “Advertisers don’t need to track individual consumers across the web to get the performance benefits of digital advertising.”

Tempkin wrote, “Advances in aggregation, anonymization, on-device processing and other privacy-preserving technologies offer a clear path to replacing individual identifiers.”

He references Google’s own tests with what is known as a Federated Cohort of Advertisers (floc) which is basically a way to reach people with relevant content and ads by clustering large groups of people with similar interests. (Trust the IT industry to invest an impenetrable acronym to obscure a simple idea.)

The effect is to take third-party cookies out of the advertising equation and instead hide individuals within large crowds of people with common interests, he writes. ” Chrome intends to make FLoC-based cohorts available for public testing through origin trials with its next release this month, and we expect to begin testing FLoC-based cohorts with advertisers in Google Ads in Q2. Chrome also will offer the first iteration of new user controls in April and will expand on these controls in future releases, as more proposals reach the origin trial stage, and they receive more feedback from end-users and the industry.”

Tempkin says this points to a future where there is no need to sacrifice relevant advertising and monetization in order to deliver a private and secure experience.

Not everyone is convinced. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world that has fought the good fight around internet privacy since before Google existed is not impressed.

It describes Floc as a terrible idea, via a blog from staff technologist Bennett Cyphers

He writes that some Google proposals suggest it has learned the wrong lessons from the backlash against the surveillance business model that underpins adtech.

According to Cyphers, “FLoC is meant to be a new way to make your browser do the profiling that third-party trackers used to do themselves: in this case, boiling down your recent browsing activity into a behavioral label, and then sharing it with websites and advertisers.”

“The technology will avoid the privacy risks of third-party cookies, but it will create new ones in the process. It may also exacerbate many of the worst non-privacy problems with behavioral ads, including discrimination and predatory targeting,” says Cyphers.

He further criticises Google for framing the debate as old tracking versus new tracking, and suggests, “Instead of re-inventing the tracking wheel, we should imagine a better world without the myriad problems of targeted ads.”

Not keen on email, either

In addition to its opposition to third-party cookies (or even a new type of third-party cookie), Google has also indicated it is not keen on the use of email addresses as the anchor point for identity.

Tempkin for instance says “We don’t believe these solutions will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren’t a sustainable long term investment.”

That has lead to claims in the industry Google whether by design or happenstance will kill email-based identity systems such as UID 2.0 and LiveRamp’s ATS.

Tom Kershaw, CTO of Magnite and Chairman of Prebid.org is having none of it. Writing on Adexchanger, he first notes that Google’s most recent announcement was made by Google’s Ads team, not the Chrome team. He says email-based identity systems such as UID 2.0 and LiveRamp’s ATS will continue because they are based on consumer choice and opt-in.

“But more importantly, user log-ins are just one part of the solution that the industry is putting forward to allow for relevant, effective advertising without third-party cookies. It’s always been the case that logins would only cover a small percentage of the overall Internet community. In fact, most analysts feel that 20% is the upper bound of how many users we can expect to opt-in to a targeted ad experience.”

Google First

Will Oremus, a writer for OneZero meanwhile, argues that Google’s Privacy-First Web’ is really a Google-first web.

“Rather than die on the cookie hill, Google appears to be retreating to what it sees as a more defensible form of tracking — one that creates some competitive advantages for Google in particular,” he writes.

According to Oremus, “For one thing, Google will still track users’ behavior on its own services — and, as you might have noticed, it happens to have rather a lot of services. In general, making it harder for websites to track users across the web will place more emphasis on “first-party data,”  while adding that it’s hard to think of a company with more first-party data than Google.

Social license

We asked Steve Millward,  General Manager, Commercial for smrtr, a company that helps businesses to commercial their data, to describe the business impact of the shift away from 3rd party cookies. “Apart from the obvious changes required to existing processes, there is a need for greater innovation in marketing and data that will be required in the short and long term. It’s a great leveller that will give the most innovative companies the opportunity to differentiate themselves and succeed. I have to see this as an opportunity rather than a threat for companies that seize it.”

Millard told Which-50 the change  has been coming for a long time.

“Adtech has been so preoccupied with what it could do with data, it didn’t give enough thought to what it should be doing. The privacy journey is now well underway, but with more to come and everyone needs to get used to it. Whilst Google acknowledges that the market is trying to find a replacement, it’s pretty clear that the prevailing view is now that individual targeting has now lost its social license (if it ever had it).”

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