Outside of Google's London headquarters.
PHOTO: William

Google announced today a set of transparency and privacy commitments related to the design and implementation of its third-party cookie web tracking alternative, the Privacy Sandbox.

The commitments could become legally binding if accepted by the UK government's Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA), which has pushed the search giant for greater transparency since it opened an investigation earlier this year.

What Google Promises

The open-source Privacy Sandbox intends to make cookie-tracking obsolete. It's based on anonymized group-targeting principles vs. individual tracking. Google calls these groups “Federated Learning of Cohorts,” or FLoC, which allows brands to curate relevant advertisements based on the interests of each FLoC without the ability to determine the specific individuals targeted. FLoC is available in a developer origin trial in Chrome.

Oliver Bethell, director of Legal at Google, blogged on June 11 about the commitments. According to Bethell's post, Google's promises include:

  • Working directly with the CMA timelines, changes and tests during the development of the Privacy Sandbox proposals.
  • Google’s ads products will not access synced Chrome browsing histories (or data from other user-facing Google products) in order to track users to target or measure ads on sites across the web.
  • Google’s ads products will not access synced Chrome browsing histories or publishers' Google Analytics accounts to track users for targeting and measuring ads on our own sites, such as Google Search.
  • As the Privacy Sandbox proposals are developed and implemented, that work will not give preferential treatment or advantage to Google’s advertising products or to Google’s own sites.

Related Article: As Google FLoC Trial Rolls Out, What's a Marketer's Next Move?

What’s Next for CMA and Google?

The CMA pressure on Google began in January when the British government group launched an enforcement action against Google regarding its Privacy Sandbox. 

In his blog post, Bethell noted Google welcomed the opportunity to engage with the regulator “with the mandate to promote competition for the benefit of consumers.” The CMA closely monitors anti-competitive actions. Bethell also noted the United Kingdom’s privacy regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), is working collaboratively with, and providing direct input to, the CMA on Google’s approach.

The CMA will consider Google’s commitments through July 8. If accepted, they will become legally binding, close the CMA enforcement case and lead to the next phase of oversight work for the CMA. The CMA would then engage with Google on the details of each of its proposals, participate in the design and assessment of robust trials and consider the proposals against the criteria set out in Google’s commitments, according to the CMA. 

While the commitments aim to address UK competition concerns, they will likely have implications for the global implementation of Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals, according to CMA officials.

Why Does this Matter to Marketers?

Some marketers are calling the Google commitments a victory, but with a caveat: Google must be watched closely to ensure it follows up on its promises.

Marketers for an Open Web (MOW), a coalition of marketers and publishers who support an “Open Web” and who have been outspoken critics of Google’s post-third-party-cookie plans were pleased with the outcome, with caveats. "Google has a track record of offering worthless undertakings so we’re assessing the CMA statement carefully, to see if there will be a genuine change in behavior or whether this will be more of the same," James Rosewell, director of Marketers for an Open Web, said in a statement.

MOW teamed up with US Save Journalism Project in March. In a joint statement, they stated Google “already possesses more data on more people than any other organization on the planet. In reality it is only stopping the use of third-party cookies to enhance its own commercial interests.”

The group called for regulatory intervention to stop Google from stifling open competition for the web. Google is already involved in anti-trust hearings with the U.S. government. In April, Rosewell told CMSWire marketers need to ask how many choices they want on where they spend their money. MOW’s claim is Google’s Privacy Sandbox distorts competition and restrict others ability to choose how their businesses operate.

Related Article: Google's FLoC Helps Bring Cookieless Marketing and Privacy Into Focus

60 Days to Examine Removal of Cookies

However, the commitments the CMA obtained "appears to provide a mechanism to create the conditions for both genuinely safeguarding people’s privacy and choice," Rosewell said in the MOW statement. MOW officials welcomed the CMA’s decision to monitor Google’s proposals to ensure they do not damage competition.

One Google promise in particular includes a standstill period of at least 60 days before Google proceeds with the removal of third-party cookies. This gives the CMA the opportunity, should any outstanding concerns not be resolved, to reopen its investigation and, if necessary, impose interim measures to avoid harm to competition.

The CMA must make sure it is completely engaged with the whole replacement and implementation process and that Google is not able to slip anti-competitive measures under the radar, MOW officials stressed.

“The authority must make sure that Google is not allowed to use undue influence and bully competitors as it has done in the past,” Rosewell added. “We will be looking to Google to honor its undertakings given to the CMA. Likewise, we will be looking to the CMA and when it begins operations, the regulator’s new Digital Markets Unit, to guarantee that a level playing field is created and maintained, preserving the open web for future generations.”

Rosewell said MOW would now be looking to worldwide regulators and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) organization that sets industry standards to embrace the CMA’s thinking.

Why Did CMA Take Action?

While privacy concerns have surrounded the use of cookies online, digital advertisers use them to personalize and target advertisements more effectively, providing an income stream for free online content such as newspapers, according to the CMA.

The CMA's concern with Google's proposed Privacy Sandbox alternative was that, without regulatory oversight and scrutiny, it could be developed and implemented in ways that “impede competition in digital advertising markets.” Advertising spending would become even more concentrated on Google, harming consumers who ultimately pay the cost of advertising. It would also undermine the ability of online publishers such as newspapers to generate revenue and to continue producing valuable content in the future, the CMA contends.

“The emergence of tech giants such as Google has presented competition authorities around the world with new challenges that require a new approach,” said Andrea Coscelli, the CMA’s chief executive. “That’s why the CMA is taking a leading role in setting out how we can work with the most powerful tech firms to shape their behavior and protect competition to the benefit of consumers."

Google’s commitments could promote competition in digital markets, Coscelli added, helping to protect the ability of online publishers to raise money through advertising and safeguarding users’ privacy.

Google: We’re Open to Feedback

Google’s Bethell called CMA’s approach “thoughtful.” He said the company welcomes feedback from the public and will continue to engage with the CMA and the industry on this important topic.

“We understand that our plans will be scrutinized,” he added, “so we’ll also continue to engage with other regulators, industry partners and privacy experts as well.”