Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Fighting for the future of our industry

By James Rosewell, Director of Marketers for an Open Web 

Google’s proposed Privacy Sandbox is a clear and present threat to the very future of the digital media industry.

The Chrome browser and its Chromium-powered counterparts represent more than 70% of web usage and Google’s proposed Sandbox changes will fundamentally alter how publishers, adtech and advertisers can interact with these users.

Much of the debate on the subject has been focused on the removal of third party cookies – and this aspect will indeed have a massive impact on many publishers and adtech businesses. However, there are 23 proposals within the Sandbox, many of which will have at least as significant an impact as the so-called ‘death of the cookie’.

WebID, for example, will essentially give Google control over logins to websites, potentially disintermediating any subscription media business from its users. User Agent Strings, on the other hand, will remove the ability of publishers to personalise content for different devices, damaging audience engagement.

The impact of these changes will be massive and two fold. Firstly, this vital, interoperable data be taken away from publishers, adtech companies and agencies, damaging their ability to target, to measure and to verify. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Google will continue to have access to this data, giving it an unassailable advantage in digital advertising.

The threat to independence

The logical end point of this is nothing less than the death of the Open Web. Independent adtech will struggle to compete; small publishers will collapse faced with a catastrophic loss of revenue; and advertisers will have no choice but to access their audiences via Google’s walled garden.

Google has cleverly positioned these changes to make them hard to argue against. The Privacy Sandbox, they say, is about protecting consumers and only evil adtech companies could want to argue against privacy. However the Sandbox has very little to do with Privacy and a lot to do with cementing Google’s dominance of the market.

No-one would argue against the need for better, privacy-friendly, pseudonymous advertising data – we all accept the need for change. This doesn’t mean accepting that this change must come via Google developed, controlled and owned standards that place all of the power in their hands.

Regulators in the US, UK and Europe have all launched a variety of investigations and inquiries into Google’s dominance over the last few months. These processes, however, move slowly and the threat from Google is imminent. Should Google, as looks likely, launch the Sandbox in the next few months then the regulators’ eventual actions will be irrelevant in the face of a technical reality.

Happily, however, none of this is an inevitability. For too long the industry has accepted the removal of this vital, interoperable data as a fait accompli – as something to be adapted to or got around – but this is changing.

Regulatory challenges

The UK’s Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) has recently launched a formal investigation into Privacy Sandbox which has the potential to move quickly to delay its launch until such time as its implications are better understood in terms of their impact on a balanced digital advertising market.

The CMA’s ‘Interim Measures’ powers are designed for a situation like this where reality moves faster than regulation. They are intended to pause a potentially anticompetitive act until regulators have had the time to properly investigate.

This investigation came around as the result of a complaint filed by an organisation called Marketers for an Open Web (www.marketersforanopenweb.com), a coalition of publishers and technology businesses who felt the need to fight back against the dominance of the tech giants and their oligopolistic power over the Open Web.

Their fight has led to this stage, where one of the world’s most respected competition regulators is seriously considering whether to act against Google’s anticompetitive actions. But this fight isn’t won.

The CMA is now talking to the wider industry, looking for the viewpoints and evidence that demonstrate why Privacy Sandbox should, or should not, be stopped. Any company that fears Google’s impact on their business must step up now, join MOW and help prove to the CMA that Privacy Sandbox will embed a fundamental competitive imbalance in the digital advertising market.

This is once-in-a-lifetime, existential battle for the soul of the digital media industry. Should Google succeed it will lock-in an unassailable technological advantage in digital advertising that could not be undone.

Should the CMA prevail, however, Google’s growing dominance will be halted, giving time for regulators and governments to shape a regulatory ecosystem that better enables a free, fair and competitive marketplace.

Opinion

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