Privacy Sandbox: How is 2024 Looking?

As the digital advertising landscape evolves, a critical question arises: Can Google's Privacy Sandbox truly balance the competing demands of ad performance and heightened user privacy, or is this merely a pipe dream? 

The death of third-party cookies, the end of data tracking, the forever altered privacy landscape - no matter where you look, it seems this discourse is inescapable. And with good reason - for the ad tech world, this is game-changing news. But what comes next? We take a look at Google’s Privacy Sandbox, the final phase in the deprecation of the third-party cookie, and what we can expect to see in 2024 and beyond.

Playing Nice in the Sandbox

Without overstating the obvious for those within the sector, Google’s Privacy Sandbox is the brainchild of industry-wide collaboration aimed at enhancing the privacy of users across the globe. It is a concerted effort by Google, along with various stakeholders in the advertising industry, to develop a framework that balances effective advertising with the increasing demand for user privacy. The Privacy Sandbox is a testament to the realisation that the challenge of privacy cannot be tackled in isolation. It involves input and feedback from advertisers, publishers, tech companies, and regulatory bodies. 

The Current State of Affairs

With the Tracking Protection Tool having just been introduced last week, to 1% (30mn users) of Chrome users globally, we are witnessing the rollout in real-time. After the test on 1% of Chrome users is complete, Privacy Sandbox will be opened up to more Chrome users for enhanced privacy control. 

The advertising industry is adapting to new technologies for behavioural targeting while respecting user privacy. The project, still in its early stages, has raised some uncertainties, but a basic framework is emerging.

Some key components include:

CHIPS: Enable developers to opt for a cookie to be stored in a partitioned manner, providing a unique storage space per each main website visited.

Related Website Sets: Permit domains under the same ownership to identify themselves as part of the same primary entity.

Shared Storage: Develop a universal API that facilitates the storage and retrieval of cross-site data that is not partitioned. This data can only be accessed in a secure setting to prevent any data breaches.

Storage Partitioning: Implement a system where all user-related data, like localStorage or cookies, is keyed by both the main website and the origin of the loaded resource, as opposed to being keyed by a single origin or site.

Fenced Frames: Embed content on a webpage securely without the exchange of cross-site data.

Network State Partitioning: Ensure that browser network resources are not shared across different primary contexts by using a network partition key for each request. This key must match for resource reuse.

Federated Credential Management (FedCM): Offer support for federated identity systems without disclosing the user's email or other personal details to third-party services or websites, unless there is explicit user consent.

Topics API: Facilitate interest-based advertising without relying on third-party cookies or monitoring user activity across multiple sites.

Protected Audience API: Enable ad targeting for remarketing and custom audiences in a manner that prevents its use by third parties for tracking user browsing habits across sites. This API is the initial experiment in Chromium based on the TURTLEDOVE family of proposals.

In essence, user data remains secure within Chrome, with interests identified from browsing history. Users with similar interests are grouped, and Chrome maintains the group's confidentiality. Advertisers target these groups, while other APIs support activities like fraud detection and conversion tracking. The First-Party Sets facilitate targeting across a publisher's multiple sites, but cross-site targeting is limited, and the Privacy Budget ensures that only essential user data is disclosed.

How the Industry is Reacting 

The ad tech sector’s reception of these changes has been varied. Larger companies with more resources have been proactive in integrating these new technologies into their systems, seeing it as an inevitable shift towards a more privacy-conscious advertising landscape. However, for smaller businesses and publishers, the transition has been more challenging. The lack of third-party cookies, which many smaller entities relied on for targeted advertising, has necessitated a shift towards alternative strategies such as contextual advertising or first-party data collection. This transition requires both technological adaptation and a reshaping of business models, which can be resource-intensive.

The effectiveness of advertising in this new privacy-focused environment is also under scrutiny. Early indicators suggest that while these technologies provide a more privacy-compliant way of targeting ads, they may not yet offer the same level of precision as cookie-based methods. Advertisers are experimenting with these new tools to understand their impact on ad performance metrics such as click-through rates and conversion rates. Additionally, there's an ongoing debate about how well these innovations balance privacy concerns with the economic needs of publishers and advertisers. While privacy advocates applaud the move towards more user-centric models, there are concerns about whether these technologies still allow for sufficient data collection to enable effective advertising.

The effectiveness of these changes and their impact on the digital advertising ecosystem, particularly for smaller players, remains a subject of ongoing evaluation and adaptation.

Privacy Sandbox: Boon or Bane?

The Privacy Sandbox does not negate all ongoing concerns about privacy and trust, despite the initiative’s goal to enhance online transparency in an era that will undoubtedly be defined as post-cookie. 

Especially from the perspective of the ad tech industry.

The way campaign success is measured will be forever altered, and despite the initiative’s stated goals, there are prevailing worries that the Privacy Sandbox might not go far enough in protecting user privacy. Critics argue that while the removal of third-party cookies is a step in the right direction, the alternative technologies proposed by Google could still allow for extensive data collection and user tracking, albeit in a less direct manner. This concern is compounded by the fact that users often have limited understanding and control over how their data is aggregated and used for cohort-based advertising.

Is the Privacy Sandbox a power play by Big Tech to further consolidate its power? Google's stronghold in the online ad market casts a shadow of doubt over the true intent behind its Privacy Sandbox. Unsurprisingly, critics and competitors alike are wary, with some viewing this initiative as a strategic ploy by Google to further cement its grip on the industry under the banner of enhancing privacy. By dictating the new norms of digital advertising, Google stands to tilt the playing field in favour of its own suite of services. This brewing skepticism is amplified amidst ongoing antitrust investigations and increasing demands for tighter regulation of tech behemoths. The worry lingers: Could the Privacy Sandbox, despite addressing some privacy concerns, unwittingly pave the way for a more monopolised ad tech realm? Only time will tell.

There is a brighter side to the Privacy Sandbox saga. This paradigm shift presents a unique opportunity for the advertising industry to reignite its creative spark. In a landscape no longer reliant on the crutch of third-party cookies, advertisers are being challenged to innovate and think outside the box. 

The move away from traditional cookie-based targeting compels a return to the fundamentals of advertising - understanding the audience, crafting compelling narratives, and engaging users in more meaningful ways. There's a renewed emphasis on organic traffic generation, leveraging the power of quality content, and genuine engagement to attract and retain audiences. This approach not only aligns with the increasing demand for privacy but also holds the potential to foster a more authentic connection between brands and consumers.

Whether or not it proves to be a genuine solution, Privacy Sandbox could at least be the catalyst that propels the ad tech industry towards a more creative, organic, and fundamentally sound form of advertising. It's an invitation to innovate, to explore new territories of digital marketing, and to rediscover the art of captivating an audience in the age of privacy-first internet.

Looking to the Future

2024 excites and provides opportunity due to misalignment across the Industry in how to manage identity loss. The big winners will inevitably be the bankable, scaled, yet measurable platforms: search and social.

I recall how as RTB took off, some major brands were missing for up to five years until they also executed diverse buying strategies made possible by the combination of real-time bidding, cookies and identity. Yet, talented programmatic buyers only using DSPs and marketing managers at brands who haven’t begun to create a first-party cookie strategy shouldn’t freak out yet. 

Buyers who can assign resource Sandbox testing may obtain first-mover advantages (like low CPMs) due to a reduced buyer pool but whether performance can be maintained or improved vis-a-vis will be what UK's CMA needs to know.  It is also a great time for CMOs and all those who support them to get familiar with and support non-cookie formats like in-game, DOOH and CTV.

Julian Savitch-Lee, DigiCake, programmatic consultant and advisor