Campaigners urge UK’s competition watchdog to impose restraining order on Google over new ‘Privacy Sandbox’ system amid fears that restricting independent data tracking and analytics could cost publishers up to 75% of their revenue

  • Advertisers track individuals across websites they visit with third party cookies
  • Google wants to replace this with ‘Privacy Sandbox’ that splits users into cohorts
  • ‘Movement for an Open Web’ alliance is concerned over impact on publishers
  • It wants CMA to issue restraining order against the rollout of Privacy Sandbox 

Campaigners today urged Britain’s competition watchdog to impose a restraining order on Google over its rollout of the controversial ‘Privacy Sandbox’ system.

Google wants to replace third party cookies, in which advertisers track individuals across the websites they visit, with the new technology that splits users into cohorts.

But the ‘Movement for an Open Web’ (MOW) alliance of tech businesses, advertisers and publishers has said Google admits that removing third-party cookies ‘without an adequate replacement’ would see most of the world’s top 500 publishers lose more than 50 per cent of their revenue, and some over 75 per cent.

And MOW is now calling for the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to issue a restraining order against the rollout of Privacy Sandbox until the US tech giant can show it has met the latest undertakings it has given about how the system will work.

Google gave the CMA commitments about the rollout in June, which meant it would take place under the watchdog’s supervision. After a consultation, the CMA asked that these were strengthened – and Google gave improved undertakings last month.

These included increasing Google’s transparency and engagement with the industry, and improving the provisions on the firm self-preferencing its advertising products.

MOW says the ‘Privacy Sandbox’ will impair independent analytics, advertising, fraud detection, data services, performance optimisation and other open web features.

Movement for an Open Web pointed to this document by Google in 2019 that said if third-party cookies are removed without an adequate replacement, ‘most of the world’s top 500 publishers would lose more than 50 per cent of their revenue, and some over 75 per cent’

The ‘Privacy Sandbox’ will be a major overhaul of how ads work on Google’s Chrome browser

It also believes the system will increase the value of data Google gets from sources uniquely available to it through integrated services like search functions.

Now, it wants the injunction to ensure that Google cannot implement any stage of the Privacy Sandbox until it convinces the CMA it meets the modified commitments.

What undertakings were given by Google to the Competition and Markets Authority?

These were the new commitments given by Google to the Competition and Markets Authority last month over its rollout of the Privacy Sandbox:

  • ensure that the CMA’s role and the ongoing CMA process are mentioned in Google’s key public announcements;
  • instruct its staff not to make claims to customers which contradict the commitments;
  • report regularly to the CMA on how Google has taken account of third party views;
  • address concerns about Google removing functionality or information before the full Privacy Sandbox changes, including by delaying enforcement of its Privacy Budget proposal, and offering commitments around the introduction of measures to reduce access to IP addresses;
  • clarify the internal limits on the data that Google can use;
  • provide greater certainty to third parties developing alternative technologies;
  • improve the provisions on reporting and compliance, including by appointing a CMA-approved monitoring trustee; and
  • Google’s modified commitments to last for 6 years from the date of any decision by the CMA to accept them.

And James Rosewell, founder of MOW, today called on the CMA to take further action.

He said: ‘Having put the issue out for consultation, the authority must listen to those in Google’s imminent firing line. 

‘Google’s planned changes will hurt businesses – Google themselves say so. The CMA need to lean in and use their powers.

‘If not, we will see many publishers, and with that their titles and their journalism, going to the wall or the ‘walled gardens’ of Google and Apple. Using an interim order will provide the time to negotiate workable improvements to competition and online privacy.’

The alliance highlighted a document by Google’s engineers written in 2019, who found that ‘if Privacy Sandbox removes ‘third-party’ cookies used by businesses without an adequate replacement, most of the world’s top 500 publishers would lose more than 50 per cent of their revenue, and some over 75 per cent’.

A MOW spokesman added: ‘This is tantamount to a major threat to journalism as news publishers increasingly rely upon digital advertising for income. The CMA agrees with the finding and thinks the likely losses are closer to 70 per cent.’

MailOnline has contacted the CMA and Google for comment today.  

Last month Google offered new proposals on the way it uses customer data following the CMA’s intervention.

The CMA is concerned that the Privacy Sandbox risks squeezing competition by removing third-party cookies and other functionalities from the Chrome browser.

Investigators raised concerns that plans by Google to hide data – in the name of privacy – would impede competition in digital advertising markets.

This could make advertising spending even more concentrated on Google, harming consumers who ultimately pay for the cost of advertising, the CMA said.

It may undermine the ability of online publishers to generate revenue and continue to produce valuable content in the future, reducing choice for consumers, it added. 

As a result of the changes proposed by Google, the regulator said privacy could improve without adversely affecting users.

Google has already announced a two-year delay on phasing out the third-party cookies

The CMA launched its investigation in June this year and heard from more than 40 third parties, who raised concerns that competition would be hit.

Google has now committed to greater transparency and engagement, alongside committing to no remove certain functionality before third-party cookies.

The tech giant added that it will ensure the CMA will continue to play a role in monitoring the business and be mentioned in future key public announcements.

Staff must not make claims to customers which contradict the commitments and must report regularly on how they are taking third-party views into account.

Google has already announced a two-year delay on phasing out the third-party cookies for ad tracking on its browser until 2023 whilst it works with industry to ensure it is not given an unfair advantage.

Internal limits on the data that Google can use will be clarified and greater certainty to third parties developing alternative technologies will be given, the CMA has said.

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