Google’s privacy plans will soon encompass Android, as the search giant will take many of the same steps as Apple to limit consumer tracking on mobile devices.
On Wednesday, Google updated what it calls Privacy Sandbox, an initiative launched last year to apply stricter data controls to the internet. Privacy Sandbox focused on Chrome web browsers first, but now is coming to Android. The advertising industry has been waiting for Google to provide details about its Android privacy plans, as they promise to affect ad targeting and measurement, just like Apple has done on iPhones.
Google’s update gave the first hints of the Android roadmap, but it was careful to distance the policies from Apple, suggesting that it would only change advertising on mobile devices after consulting with ad industry stakeholders.
“We’re announcing a multi-year initiative to build the Privacy Sandbox on Android, with the goal of introducing new, more private advertising solutions … these solutions will limit sharing of user data with third parties and operate without cross-app identifiers,” Anthony Chavez, VP of product management, Android security and privacy, said in Wednesday’s announcement,
Google said it would “limit” data-sharing through the advertising ID, a unique code for each device used to target and measure ads. Google’s outline looked similar to Apple’s more recent changes that impacted the advertising industry, but ad tech executives said Google appeared more measured.
“The Privacy Sandbox on Android builds on our existing efforts on the web, providing a clear path forward to improve user privacy, while giving developers and businesses the tools they need to succeed on mobile,” Chavez said in an email to Ad Age.
Google’s timeline forecasted that the privacy initiatives on Android would launch a testing phase by the end of the year with “scaled testing” in 2023.
“Google extended the rollout,” said Charles Manning, CEO of Kochava, the mobile app attribution and analytics platform. “It’s not going to be an overnight exercise where they switch off access to the advertising ID.”
“Google is also providing a roadmap on how the ecosystem can participate to accomplish both targeting and measurement in the absence of that ID,” Manning said.
“We plan to support existing ads platform features, including Advertising ID, for at least two years and we intend to provide substantial notice ahead of any future changes,” Chavez said in the email to Ad Age.
In recent months, Google has unveiled a series of changes to its ads, with a focus on Chrome, Google’s web browser on desktop and mobile devices. Google is cracking down on tracking consumers as they visit websites. Google plans to phase out third-party cookies and other identifiers in Chrome. Instead, it is working on ways to target ads through mechanisms like Topics API, a software platform for publishers to get limited insights into visitors. Topics are based on a small sample of anonymized interests culled from a person’s prior three weeks of internet browsing history.
Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox are examples of browsers that already blocked third-party cookies, which have been foundational to programmatic advertising. Apple has been aggressive in shutting down tracking on iPhones, too. Last year, Apple launched App-Tracking Transparency, which forced apps to obtain permission from users to collect data about their mobile habits. The change cut mobile marketers off from Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers. The Apple ID made it easy to check when ads led to sales and downloads, giving mobile marketers a simple look at the effectiveness of their advertising budgets. Apple’s changes have since caused headaches throughout the mobile marketing world.
Facebook, now under the corporate name Meta, was perhaps the most high-profile company affected by Apple. Facebook has said that Apple’s changes affected its ad platform’s ability to track “conversions,” which is how often an ad leads to an action from a consumer.
“We realize that other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy, bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers,” Google’s Chavez said in the announcement. “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.”
The Google announcement named Snap, Activision Blizzard, Duolingo and Rovio as some of the developers collaborating on the Android effort.
James Aylett, chief data analytics officer at Annalect, a data and analytics division of Omnicom, said that advertisers will adjust to the changes to Google, as they have to Apple’s changes. “Some techniques may go away entirely, some of them won’t,” Aylett said.
For instance, advertisers will look for new ways to model online measurement, using less personal data to analyze how campaigns fared. Advertisers also are embracing contextual ads, based on analyzing the content on a given app or website, rather than analyzing the specific viewer, Aylett said.
“It doesn’t mean that digital advertising becomes valueless,” Aylett said. “It just changes the way that you have to think about the question: Am I sure that I am getting value for my money?”
Advertisers expect the Android privacy restrictions to reflect the work Google has done with Chrome, where it is experimenting with contextual ad targeting tools like Topics API.
Google will need to be careful about any changes to advertising and data, because its policies affect ad tech rivals and publishers. Google generated $209 billion in ad revenue in 2021. It is being watched carefully by regulators that demand consumer privacy, but they also want to protect businesses that rely on Google’s ad network and products.
“Google is such a large player that they hold the keys to what happens here,” said Kristy Schafer, head of sales for ad solutions at Permutive, a data platform that connects advertisers and publishers.
Publishers have direct relationships with consumers to ask for permission to collect first-party data, Schafer said. “The initiative is to really recognize that the data sits with the producer of content, the publisher or app owner,” Schafer said. “That creates stronger ties to more privacy-safe solutions.”
Advertisers will be watching how Google designs its consent framework on Android, and whether it will resemble what Apple has already done on iPhones. Apple’s opt-in tracking consent form was contentious among developers, like Facebook. Publishers are concerned about Apple playing gatekeeper in the relationship with the end-user. “It spurs a whole battle of the ecosystems,” Schafer said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to consumer privacy and rights.”