UPDATED 13:06 EDT / NOVEMBER 26 2021

POLICY

Google proposes Privacy Sandbox commitments to address UK regulator’s concerns

Google LLC has offered to take steps to address concerns by the U.K.’s antitrust regulator about its Privacy Sandbox initiative.

The Privacy Sandbox initiative is an effort by Google to increase online privacy for users of its Chrome browser.

Google and the U.K.’s antitrust regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority, disclosed the development today in separate announcements. The regulator stated that “CMA’s provisional view is that Google’s revised offer addresses the CMA’s competition concerns, so the CMA is now consulting on these modifications.”

“We have always been clear that Google’s efforts to protect user’s privacy cannot come at the cost of reduced competition,” said CMA Chief Executive Andrea Coscelli. “That’s why we have worked with the Information Commissioner’s Office, the CMA’s international counterparts and parties across this sector throughout this process to secure an outcome that works for everyone.”

Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative, the focus of the CMA’s concerns, is an effort by the search giant to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome. Third-party cookies are files that advertisers install on users’ devices to track their online activity and deliver personalized ads. With Privacy Sandbox, Google aims to replace the technology with a set of tools that would limit advertisers’ ability to track users, but still facilitate the delivery of personalized ads.

The core component of Privacy Sandbox is a piece of software called FLoC, short for Federated Learning of Cohorts. The vision behind FLoC is to group users with similar interests into “cohorts” for ad personalization purposes. Advertisers would receive data about the interests of a cohort and not the individual users who make it up, an approach that Google says offers more privacy than third-party cookies. 

The CMA launched an antitrust investigation into Privacy Sandbox at the start of the year. The main concern is that the initiative could bolster Google’s competitive position in the online advertising industry at the expense of consumers and publishers.

In response to the CMA’s probe, Google earlier this year provided the regulator with a list of proposed steps it could take to address antitrust concerns. The CMA received feedback from more than 40 third parties about Google’s proposed steps. According to the CMA, the respondents suggested that the commitments offered by Google should be strengthened.

The new proposed steps that Google announced today are part of a revised version of its offer designed to address antitrust concerns in a more complete way.

First, Google has offered to appoint a monitoring trustee approved by the CMA. The monitoring trustee “will have access and technical expertise needed to ensure compliance” with regulatory expectations, the search giant stated.

Google is also underscoring its commitment to not use first-party personal data that it collects about users to target them with ads across non-Google websites. The data won’t be used to measure those ads’ effectiveness either, the company said. Additionally, the search giant is committing to “restrict the use of Chrome browsing history and Analytics data” for ad targeting across both Google and non-Google websites. 

Following criticism of Privacy Sandbox from competing browser makers and others in the tech industry, Google is offering to implement a “more transparent process” for taking into account market feedback about the initiative. “More extensive testing commitments” are also included in Google’s offer.

“If accepted, the commitments we have obtained from Google become legally binding, promoting competition in digital markets, helping to protect the ability of online publishers to raise money through advertising and safeguarding users’ privacy,” Coscelli said.

Google said that if the CMA accepts the proposal, it will implement the commitments globally. The search giant plans to begin rolling out Privacy Sandbox next year and phase out third-party cookies in Chrome by late 2023.

Photo: Google

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