Let the sandbox games begin! On February 14, Google made the beta version of the tracking technology "Privacy Sandbox" available to selected users of the Android mobile operating system. Notified users of Android version 13 can participate in the trial version and test the so-called "topics" according to which apps can play targeted advertising in the future. The system should also better protect the privacy of users.
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Together with three other application programming interfaces (APIs), "Topics" is the replacement for third-party cookies or the Android advertising ID, which Google wants to ban from its Chrome browser and Android operating system from the second half of 2024. Cookies are small files that websites place on users' devices to create profiles of them. Initially, they were used, for example, to store digital shopping carts or login data. Now they are primarily used to collect information about which advertising might be of interest to users. The Android advertising ID can be seen as the equivalent of cookies for Android, which can be used to create a pseudonymized advertising profile of a user across different apps.
Criticism from the advertising industry
In the run-up, the project met with widespread criticism from the advertising industry. The fear was that the user profiles were too inaccurate and made targeted advertising considerably more difficult. The free, ad-financed Internet was even in danger, it was said. For this reason, two class action lawsuits are currently underway in the Netherlands and Great Britain, which are intended to force Google to pay damages. There is talk of 25 billion euros in advertising revenue for publishers and media houses due to the abolition of third-party cookies.
The topic is relevant to competition, as Google has a market share of 66 percent with its Chrome browser and a market share of 43 percent with Android operating systems across all devices. This includes not only smartphones, but also, for example, smart televisions.
"Presumably, Google itself will keep the data on user activities and just no longer share it with third parties," says Thomas Höppner, a lawyer at the law firm Hausfeld, who critically deals with the Google ecosystem. Google itself can continue to display very targeted advertising with its first-party cookies, which the company collects via the search engine, the Chrome browser or Android.
More than 220 billion euros in revenue
For example, the first results of a Google search are usually sponsored links from advertisers. The model is lucrative. In 2022, Google generated advertising revenue of around $224 billion. Those who want to advertise elsewhere will find it more difficult in the future to play it out to interested users if detailed profiles can no longer be created of them.
The topics are now intended to remedy this. Depending on the behavior of users, Android creates a profile of them on different topics. A user who is interested in basket weaving gets a tick on the topic "Instructions and 'Do It Yourself'". Users can view their profile and deselect topics individually or turn off the privacy sandbox completely. Apps can freely access the profiles via APIs and display relevant advertising. Cross-app identification features should no longer exist and the transfer of data to third parties should be restricted.
Google's attractiveness is even higher
However, Thomas Höppner assumes that the API will be much less effective for refinancing apps than third-party cookies, which will also increase dependence on system providers such as Google. "At the same time, Google's appeal as an advertising medium for advertisers is increasing," says Höppner. Google will be able to present itself even more strongly as the only partner through which effective advertising can be placed.
Now that the beta version of the Privacy Sandbox has been in the hands of users for several weeks, one would actually expect a lively exchange in the depths of the Internet about such a project. However, discussions in developer forums such as Reddit or Github have so far been limited. Apparently, the circle of users is also very small and the exchange with Google about the topic is difficult. "As with the privacy sandbox for browsers, Google is playing transparency and industry involvement, which does not exist. If those affected want to learn more, they hit a wall," reports Höppner.
Google's blog post on the beta test focuses on the protection of privacy. The digital fingerprint of a user in the browser or via apps and thus the device used should be more difficult to track. Partners such as the Internet company Yahoo Japan, the software developer Unity or the delivery service Wolt advocate the improvement of the privacy sandbox compared to third-party cookies.
However, the statements do not provide explanations as to what will be improved in detail. "Google can hardly put forward the data protection interests of consumers for the changeover," says Thomas Höppner. Like many voices from the advertising industry, he shares the opinion that the privacy sandbox primarily serves to strengthen the position of the search engine in the Internet advertising ecosystem.