Perfection Thwarting Progress: Response to IAB Tech Lab's Missive on Google's Privacy Sandbox

The analysis might let perfect be the enemy of good as the industry races to find solutions for cookie deprecation before the end of this year

The Privacy Sandbox’s road to industrywide support hit another roadblock Tuesday.

The crux of the IAB Tech Lab’s 106-page analysis focuses on the ways Google-backed cookie alternative Privacy Sandbox does not support many functions enabled by the current, cookie-supported, ad-tech ecosystem, specifically calling out its lack of support in measurement, brand safety and preserving commercial deals.

While these are legitimate industry grievances, some believe that the analysis might let perfect be the enemy of good, raising so many critiques with one of the leading cookie replacement solutions that the industry cannot progress toward a privacy-focused era of digital advertising before time runs out later this year.

“Some of the [report’s] complaints seem like they come straight from ad-tech companies that a) will see their businesses significantly damaged by cookie deprecation and Privacy Sandbox and b) probably deserve it because they don’t really protect user privacy at all,” said Shiv Gupta, founder of ad-tech education outlet U of Digital. “We shouldn’t be able to serve all of the use cases [of digital advertising], because frankly, some of the use cases are an invasion of user privacy.”

The analysis has been lauded for its push for accountability from one of the industry’s largest trade bodies, which is sometimes thought to more reflect the interests of its largest members—among them, Google—instead of standing up to them.

“[It’s] good to see the IAB show backbone against Google. In the past, there have been criticisms that they won’t do it because Google is such an important member,” said Gupta. “This feels like healthy jostling.”

The IAB Tech Lab worked on the report for over six months with a working group of leaders from 65 companies across the industry. In a statement to ADWEEK, Shailley Singh, IAB Tech Lab chief operating officer and executive vice president of product, said the purpose of the analysis was to educate the industry about Privacy Sandbox, encourage testing and provide Google Chrome with feedback.

Overfocus on the Sandbox

While most of the industry has either just started testing Privacy Sandbox or hasn’t tested it at all, some ad-tech firms have spent years learning the protocols. This group has been working on solutions for various problems Privacy Sandbox poses, whereas the IAB Tech Lab is focused only on problems, said Lukasz Wlodarczyk, vp of programmatic ecosystem growth and innovation at demand-side platform RTB House.

Let’s take this opportunity to innovate outside the Google universe.

Mathieu Roche, CEO of ID5

“The report is listing issues but not constructively addressing [these problems],” Wlodarczyk added.

By dedicating so much time to Privacy Sandbox, the IAB Tech Lab is neglecting other identity solutions that might do a better job in solving advertisers’ needs, said Mathieu Roche, CEO of alternative ID solution ID5. Google has long dominated advertising with its technology, and the problems with the Privacy Sandbox application-programming interface could give the rest of the industry an opening, he added.

“We’re saying we really need Google to save us again,” Roche said. “Let’s take this opportunity to innovate outside the Google universe.”

Valid complaints: Attribution Reporting API

Some independent ad-tech companies might disagree with the tenor of the IAB Tech Lab’s report, but many agree with its specific complaints.

One ad-tech executive, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, noted that the Attribution Reporting API, also a focus of the IAB Tech Lab analysis, makes it too difficult and lengthy for advertisers to know if their campaigns performed.

A Google representative said that the Attribution Reporting API doesn’t necessarily make attribution take longer than current ad-tech systems, but it does introduce noise into the process, which means that a brand will need more data to have precise reporting.

With its analysis, the IAB Tech Lab is kicking off a period of public comment, which will end March 22.

Sure to weigh in is Google, which says the IAB Tech Lab’s analysis includes dozens of errors, inaccuracies and instances of incomplete information, a spokesperson said.

“While we’re disappointed that IAB Tech Lab released the report in this state, we’re encouraged by the many IAB members who are actively building solutions using the Privacy Sandbox APIs,” the spokesperson said. “And we look forward to partnering with the IAB Tech Lab in transitioning the industry toward more private solutions.”

The IAB Tech Lab also notes that the Privacy Sandbox raises governance concerns, given that proprietary solutions that affect the entire industry are controlled by Google, and they cannot easily be amended based on stakeholder feedback.

“What’s the operating governance? It increases the industry reliance on Google,” said Mike O’Sullivan, co-founder of data firm Sincera, noting that Google has been accused of anti-competitive schemes in the 2020 antitrust case brought by a group of attorneys general. “That wasn’t a generation ago. That’s the same company.”

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