Alex Cone, Google: “Get below the surface”

“Get below the surface”

Every day, more people within our industry realize that privacy is good for business. The journey towards the cookieless future has been long and winding, but it is now fast approaching, with cookies being completely phased out by Q3 of this year. To adapt to this new world, we’ve seen several privacy-focused solutions pop up – some more successful than others. Of course, this topic and its discussions would not be complete without mentioning Google or its Privacy Sandbox.

In the latest episode of our Identity Architects podcast, InfoSum's COO, Lauren Wetzel, sat down with Alex Cone, Privacy Sandbox Product Manager at Google, to discuss privacy, interoperability, Google’s Privacy Sandbox, and more.

“Why is privacy so important? I am someone who believes that it is a fundamental right. People need to be able to understand and kind of control the context of what they're sharing. [...] When I say it's a fundamental right, it's not like there's not different sort of context for where you're sharing but the understanding and control over it I think are really important.”

Absolutely. It is all about finding that right balance while also educating the consumer and being transparent about why and how their data is being used and what they’re getting in return. 

“There are a lot of things to balance. But I do think we can get to an internet with better privacy protections. I think that's possible, and I think it's also possible [...] being able to experience a vast, diverse open web without having to expose the complete set of data points of that experience, right? I can go traverse the web and not have to worry that I'm exposing that entire activity or at least have control over that. [...] I think it's some balance that is better than where we are today on privacy and data protection and that acknowledges that it is really awesome to have an open internet, that the reason that exists is because it's ad-funded and we need to support that too.” 

Working towards that privacy-first ecosystem is a high priority on many organizations’ agendas. Although certain markets are at different stages when it comes to privacy, the direction of travel is clear - privacy legislation will continue to ramp up. It’s, therefore, crucial to adopt new privacy-centric solutions. All eyes are on Google this year (and have been for a while), as everyone not only waits for the end of the third-party cookie but also updates on Privacy Sandbox.

“The initiative’s about keeping people's activity private across a free and open internet, that's the mission. We know publishers rely on ads to keep content free and broadly available as possible, advertisers want to help people discover new things, give them offers. And what we're doing is shipping features in Chrome and Android that effectively enable websites and apps to show people useful ads based on their activity with different parties, without revealing their identity to those parties. That's, in a nutshell, what we're up to.”

For a few years, there has been much discussion, excitement, and feedback around Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative. Given the enormity of the challenge and how much of the industry it will impact, everyone has had an opinion, and those opinions differ vastly.

“Feedback depends really heavily on your starting point. [...] Do you think there's even a problem with privacy and data protection to begin with in digital advertising? That's going to shape how you give feedback. Have you gone deep in trying to understand our tech? [...] Those sort of dimensions make a big difference. Obviously, there's a ton of different segments that we're hearing from and it's not just ad tech and digital advertising, right? There are people who spend a lot of their time thinking about privacy, who are giving us feedback. There are obviously regulators that are giving us feedback.”

Google has always said it is open to collaborating with all industry stakeholders on the initiative. With all eyes on the project and everyone having a different agenda, what’s the feedback been like?

“For those who admit there is a problem and have gone deep in understanding what we're trying to do, I think the feedback kind of either comes down to, can you make it more private or can you give me some more bits? And the people who ask for more bits actually will acknowledge that maybe you can do that in like a confidential computing environment, right?”

After gathering all the feedback, it is then up to the Privacy Sandbox team at Google to sort through it.

“We know we can do better on sort of both counts, like can you make it more private? Can you give me some more bits? We're growing the team for that reason, we're not going anywhere. Maybe that's going to be sad news for some people, but Privacy Sandbox has a lot more to do than just third-party cookie deprecation and the current set of APIs that are out there. We also acknowledge the people who haven't gone deep that it is very difficult to understand what we're doing. I think the IAB Tech Lab gave us that feedback as part of their 106-page document that like ‘hey, this is actually very difficult to come to a deep understanding’. We hear that.[...] We acknowledge all that and we realize the feedback actually could even be better if we make it easier to understand.”

There’s always more we can do to be better - and feedback helps a lot with finding the right balance and direction. Now all we need is for everyone else to realize that and embrace the privacy-first future.

“I wish people would have gotten started earlier, but I understand why they were hesitant, but it's been really encouraging to see a lot of companies starting to say, ‘okay, this is going to happen, let's engage with this thing, let's start building. [...] It's encouraging to see the activity but also see companies like InfoSum embracing this change. I think that gives me a lot of wind in my sails to see people embracing the change.”

But in the end, we can’t do it alone. It will take each and every one of us within the industry to make this happen.

“No one of us can solve for this by ourselves. [...] I started getting introduced to the web standards community who's thinking about this issue and it's the same thing, right? It's like privacy and data protection, they're bigger than any one company. [...] In a nutshell, there is no way to improve privacy and data protection in the digital space without deep collaboration between people and companies.”

So true, the theme of collective responsibility will continue in 2024.

Thanks, Alex, for the chat!