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The anti-moonshot: Why Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox is a failure of vision

Four multicolored darts are embedded in a cracked moon.

Illustration by Nick DeSantis / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

On Sept. 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave what is known as his moonshot speech. Speaking before a crowd of 35,000 people at Rice University in Houston, Kennedy recommitted the nation to the goal of landing astronauts on the moon before the end of the decade — a pledge he’d made to Congress the year before.

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own,” Kennedy told the crowd.

Even though the U.S. had not yet put an astronaut into orbit, Kennedy’s vision electrified the entire country behind this goal. It inspired the best and the brightest minds to go all-in and invent the future. The resulting Apollo program put a man on the moon, and it changed the face of technology here on Earth.

I’ve long been fascinated by big ideas like this. I spent the first part of my career steeped in aerospace engineering before working in advertising technology for the last 15 years. So let me make a conceptual leap from one moonshot to another — or what could be considered ad tech’s equivalent to such a moment — the arrival of Google Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox. It’s a huge project spanning many years of work by thousands of people inside Google and at other technology firms. It will impact billions of Chrome and Android users and will have a profound impact on the open internet economy. And like the original moonshot, it’s an engineering project that had the potential to progress things for everyone.

Except that it likely won’t. For a start, in my opinion, it inhibits audience targeting. I believe Privacy Sandbox will obscure the identity data about an individual user, making it harder to coordinate advertising across devices, and thus harder to measure and optimize performance. It could limit the ability to run attribution models, randomizing interest groups and contextual information. Furthermore, I foresee Privacy Sandbox creating on-device auctions that will add even more latency to page loads and ad rendering, degrading the user experience while ads populate more slowly on the page.

"The whole notion of a thriving ecosystem is totally absent from the in-house complexity of the revamped Chrome. They didn’t set out on a mission. They sat out on a mission."

All these factors will likely depress the value of ads. Not only will Privacy Sandbox ads have a lower CPM, but the technological complexity to activate them is extremely high. And, as if that’s not enough, implementing these APIs — becoming dependent on them — could leave any company at the mercy of Google’s team to keep them in place over the long run.

As a result, Privacy Sandbox likely has very few winners outside of Google, if there are any at all. In fact, in my opinion, the objective of the whole project could be boiled down to improving the privacy positioning of the Chrome browser by deprecating third-party cookies and any associated and similar features, but also making sure that open internet advertising doesn’t reach the moon and instead is just open enough to avoid the attention of antitrust authorities.

Compare that to JFK’s sentiment promoting the common good and you can see that Privacy Sandbox is more like the anti-moonshot. Hardly inspiring at all. It’s not a vision statement that’s going to lead to value. Instead, what it delivers is a massive investment in a project that could make the open internet a worse place for advertisers and publishers. It’s hypercomplicated — hat tip to the mathematicians and engineers who embarked on this massive rewrite of Chromium — but it’s also narrow and reductive in its aspirations.

It didn’t have to be like this. An alternative vision could have taken a different trajectory, one that could have reinvented the way the Chrome browser handles privacy while helping the open internet economy grow in a more efficient and effective way. The whole notion of a thriving ecosystem is totally absent from the in-house complexity of the revamped Chrome. They didn’t set out on a mission. They sat out on a mission.

While the countdown to cookie deprecation started a while ago, the good news is there are other ways to chart a successful course across the open internet. One key is centered around building or boosting an opt-in identity strategy. Authenticated IDs can persist in real-time bidding auctions, and this is an effective way to monetize and drive performance.

For advertisers, now is the time to activate other identifiers — such as Core ID, RampID, or Unified ID 2.0 — which are designed to create and model audiences across the ecosystem. For publishers, prompting a user to authenticate through tools such as OpenPass is critical. Such a prompt doesn’t have to deter a user: It can show up after a certain amount of time on page, or after the second or third page. But even a one-time engagement can help a publisher to build their strategy, allowing for personalized, high-value advertising on their media properties.

While the rearchitected Chrome may have sadly missed the chance to enhance the open internet, the advertising industry is on a collective mission to build something better. It has a vested interest in making new technology interoperable and available to everybody, even as walled gardens keep building their walls higher — purportedly in the name of privacy.

It’s unfortunate that the leadership at Google has plotted a course based on its own interests rather than those of the ad industry at large. You might say it has opted for navel-gazing over stargazing. To protect the privacy of users, you don’t have to create a system that makes it harder to earn revenue as an open internet publisher. We didn’t go to the moon by taking away technology from somebody else. Great visions are not a zero-sum game. Their intent should be broad, universal, and inspiring. In this regard, the Privacy Sandbox fails to deliver.

In the spirit of the moonshot, I believe a win-win is still possible if we come together. We can build a privacy-conscious open internet where all parties — advertisers, publishers, and consumers — thrive.

The Current is owned and operated by The Trade Desk, Inc.