Google slowly follows Apple in app-tracking lockdown

Like Apple, Google now says it will also block website trackers, but it will take two years and is a little vague about how it will work.

Google, Apple, Privacy, App Tracking, Safari, iOS, ,ads

Apple’s stance on privacy throws echoes across Silicon Valley, and for every social media firm losing billions of dollars there’s another agreeing with Apple's plan. Now, Google says it also plans to limit ad tracking tech — but not for two years.

Google follows Apple, kinda

Apple’s controversial decision to introduce App Tracking Transparency (ATT) generated big discussion when it was announced. In essence, it represents an attempt to put a filter between users and marketing companies to boost user privacy and reduce abuse of the information obtained through the practice.

The company’s decision to introduce ATT controls means Facebook is “losing” around $10 billion a year, though it is arguable if the company should have been able to make that cash in the first place. When were users given the control of that exchange?

ATT reflects a wider international conversation around privacy in a digital age. Apple has won a great deal of support for its stance.

In most nations, privacy regulators have begun looking into the privacy provided across other platforms, so it was inevitable that Google would be forced to take similar measures itself. Which is precisely what appears to be happening.

‘Ineffective,’ so we’ll do it anyway

Google has announced a Privacy Sandbox feature it says will be introduced in a future version of Android in 2024 or later. 

That's great, but will likely be limited. Here's why: Android is now on version 12 with 13 waiting in the wings, but Android 10 (released 2019) is currently the most widely used version of the OS. Just under half (49.2%) of all Android devices in use today run the four-year-old Android 9 or older.

In other words, once Google does introduce Privacy Sandbox with Android 15 (presumably), it will take a good few years until it is widely deployed across most Android devices. It's logical to think this will blunt the impact of Google’s proposed protection.

Google seems pleased with it, however. Announcing the decision, Anthony Chavez, vice president for product management, Android, took several thinly veiled moments to blast other approaches to ad privacy as “ineffective” (we think he meant Apple's approach).

Which seems an unusual accusation to make, given Google’s "effective" alternative will take years to make any significant impact.

But on with the show:

“Our goal with the Privacy Sandbox on Android is to develop effective and privacy enhancing advertising solutions, where users know their information is protected, and developers and businesses have the tools to succeed on mobile. While we design, build and test these new solutions, we plan to support existing ads platform features for at least two years, and we intend to provide substantial notice ahead of any future changes,” Chavez says.

On the journey to Ads 4.0

What’s really happening is a transformation of the ad industry. Historically, as the internet evolved, ad companies sought to exploit the inherent technologies until they were generating so much personal data without express user consent that it became a privacy erosion problem.

Ads gathered data, and people became data.

Apple CEO Tim Cook once said:

“Technology does not need vast troves of personal data, stitched together across dozens of websites and apps, in order to succeed. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it. We’re here today because the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom.”

At some point, this had to end. Apple arguably helped accelerate that ending, but privacy regulators have also woken up to the problem. Change was only a matter of time.

Now, it is happening.

Change is coming, get used to it

It’s in the context of this that Google’s decision — which clearly helps support its own business — is also an inevitable response to the need to define a finer balance between commercial need and personal privacy.

Building this kind of détente will take time, which I imagine is why Google is effectively asking for another two years to get the job done. During that time, it promises to work with the industry to create constraints that support the ad business while protecting user privacy.

There are some good promises. Google says Privacy Sandbox will neither use cross-app identifiers, nor exploit ad ID numbers to track users online. The company also promises to work to prevent “covert data collection."

All the same, the inescapable implication is that the ad- industry must now develop a fresh approach to online business. It has done so before. If Ads 1.0 was print advertising, Ads 2.0 television, and Ads 3.0 unconstrained data abuse on the ‘Net, then Ads 4.0 may become a return to creative ads targeting in an environment characterized by much less access to personal information.

Data will remain gold dust, but it doesn't need to get deeply personal.

‘Data deprecation is here to stay’

Writing on the Forrester blog, analysts Stephanie Liu and Joanna O’Connell, said:

“For marketers and advertisers, data deprecation is here to stay. While Google’s approach will be much slower, more cautious, and more transparent than Apple’s, the end result will be the same: less access to consumer data. Thus, as we noted last summer, marketers must continue testing different approaches to audience targeting and measurement.”

While this need to change may not be universally welcomed by the globe’s $622 billion ad industry, it is unlikely the transformation could ever have been avoided. It’s even possible the business will simply be forced to become even more creative in its approach, with sponsorship, creative assets, and highly focused topic-led advertising grabbing the dollars left behind at the demise of deeply personalized ad targeting. 

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