Apple's anti-tracking moves shook up the ad world. Will Android's do the same?

"This is a couple years out, and we need to start thinking."

Android phone with Google app

Google announced it's bringing its Privacy Sandbox to Android.

Photo: Daniel Romero /Unsplash

For many advertisers, Google's blog post on Wednesday induced flashbacks. The company announced it is bringing the Privacy Sandbox to Android, which means that over the next two years, Android phones will phase out the same cross-app tracking mechanisms that Apple abruptly blocked last summer.

Apple’s privacy change, which requires users to opt in to cross-app tracking, wreaked havoc on advertising schemes that rely on profiling individual user data to track how people navigate their phones. Meta CFO David Wehner said in the company’s January earnings call that Apple’s change would cost Meta $10 billion this year. With upwards of 80% of global smartphone market share, an Android-wide shift could be even more significant.

Google is handling its rollout very differently, though, and as a result the industry seems to be breathing a sigh of relief. Google's Anthony Chavez called the project "a multi-year initiative" in the announcement post, and practically called out Apple for "bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers." Google, he said, would build better technology before cutting off existing tools. In general, it's proceeding similarly with the Android Privacy Sandbox to how it has rolled out the Privacy Sandbox for Chrome — which has already been delayed until at least 2023, in part because of the failure of Google's first cookie-free ad-tracking attempt, FLoC.

One Meta employee said the pacing of Google’s block on cross-app tracking gives the company significantly more time to prepare. “This is a much more well-rounded set of proposals that seems to be intended to actually address problems and find good solutions to them,” the employee said.

The relaxed timeline defines the core difference between Apple and Google’s approaches to tracking user data. While Apple tries to position itself as the king of user privacy, Google acknowledges that it’s balancing advertiser, publisher and user interests. This, in turn, has given Google — a company that brought in over $209 billion in ad revenue last year — even more of an edge with advertisers.

The Meta employee put it simply: The folks at Google “understand advertising much better.”

Still, it may not be business as usual. Ty Martin, founder and CEO of marketing analytics firm Ad Bacon, said he suspects the changes might be akin to when Google replaced DoubleClick IDs, which helped advertisers track individual users across the web, with the Ads Data Hub in 2018. This new tool, which aggregates data, is less powerful and requires too much technical data-science expertise for many people to use. “You don’t quite get the level of granularity,” Martin said.

As for what specific changes Google might be planning to make, Don Marti, vice president of Ecosystem Innovation at CafeMedia, pointed to the three new items on the Privacy Sandbox for Android's developer site. Those, he said, are the best clues yet as to what advertising without cross-app tracking on Android might look like.

Two are the Topics API and the Fledge API, which Google has also been testing for Chrome. Both would begin to allow advertisers to customize ad audiences without tracking individual users’ activity. A third feature, “SDK Runtime,” might then kneecap fingerprinting, whereby advertisers collect other third-party data to piece together information about individual users.

None of these features are Google's final answers, though. Rather, they’ve been introduced so that developers have time to review sample code, process what Google is trying to do and offer tweaks and suggestions. Advertisers should find solace in the fact that Google’s timeline is at least two years long, leaving them plenty of time to chime in.

Besides, advertisers are natural-born adapters, said Tinuiti Privacy Lead Nirish Parsad. “When I got my start in digital marketing, there were under 100 tools. Now, there’s over 8,000,” he said. “There’s plenty of smart people who will be working on this, and we’re looking at all the angles to better understand what durable solutions might be.”

The key, he said, is using all the time they have. “That doesn’t mean do nothing,” he cautioned. “It means this is a couple years out, and we need to start thinking.”

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