In an attempt to adopt a more privacy-conscious approach, Google’s Privacy Sandbox is working towards replacing third-party cookies. This will allow users to manage their interests and group them into cohorts based on similar browsing patterns.
This is set to be a major change for the online advertising industry, and after several years of talking about it and releasing several experiments, it’s finally about to get real for the online advertising industry.
Google plans to migrate 1% of Chrome users to Privacy Sandbox and disable third-party cookies for them beginning in early 2024, the company announced today. Google’s plan to phase out third-party cookies entirely by the second half of 2024 remains on track.
Furthermore, with the July release of Chrome 115, Google is making Privacy Sandbox’s relevance and measurement APIs generally available to all Chrome users, allowing developers to test these APIs with live traffic. Google has no plans to make significant changes to the API following this release.
Deprecating third-party cookies for 1% of Chrome users may not seem like a big deal, but as Google’s Victor Wong, who leads product for Private Advertising Technology within Privacy Sandbox, told me, it will help developers assess their real-world readiness for the larger changes that will take effect in late 2024. Developers will be able to simulate their third-party cookie deprecation readiness beginning in Q4 2023 when they will be able to test their solutions by moving a configurable percentage of their users to Privacy Sandbox.
“This plan was developed with close consultation and coordination with UK’s Competition and Markets Authority — the CMA. We consulted with them on this and we felt this is the best way to, jointly with the industry, actually, test out the solution,” Wong explained. “In Q4 , we help coordinate some of the testing and make that easier. Q1 , we deprecate for 1%, which then, for everyone in the industry, forces them to seriously start experimenting and testing.”
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Most adtech developers should be able to begin testing their solutions at scale with the release of Chrome 115. Privacy Sandbox features such as Protected Audience, Attribution Reporting, and the Topics API will be locked in at that point.
It’s worth noting that Chrome users can already enable the Privacy Sandbox trials. Since the release of the Chrome 101 beta, the APIs have been available for testing. However, this is clearly not the same as being able to test these APIs at scale.
“A lot of folks have been asking for more scaled availability, because today, obviously, only a minority of users currently have sandbox available. So just even to do testing there is quite limited. But we’re seeing a lot of interest to scale that up,” Wong said.
He also stated that Google has no plans to take intermediate steps to increase this number beyond 1% until 2023. Google intends to go from 1% to 100% deprecation without any intermediate milestones (though there will obviously be some ramp-up).
Google’s original plan called for tracking cookies to be phased out by 2022, but the company shifted that timeline back in 2021 and then again in 2022.
“I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say how big of a deal this initiative is, at least in the history of the web. So we’re taking a very deliberate approach based on the input of voices across the ecosystem, including developers, regulators, policymakers, and advertisers. We heard from a lot of these partners, saying more time was needed to make sure that they could test and adapt,” Wong said.
However, he also stated that the company is seeing many people in the ecosystem begin to move very quickly now that these deadlines are approaching. Some partners, he believes, are already at the point where they could make the switch right now.
Privacy Sandbox is not without controversy, and other browser vendors are taking very different approaches to protecting their users’ privacy. With the CMA keeping a close eye on Google’s initiative, the company has agreed to a set of guidelines that should ensure that there are no self-serving practices in how it implements Privacy Sandbox that could give it an advantage over competitors. Because none of the competitors appear to be interested in implementing Privacy Sandbox, the implications for the overall web advertising ecosystem remain to be seen.