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‘The industry isn’t ready yet’: A new report highlights flaws in Google’s Privacy Sandbox

A complex Rube Goldberg machine incorporating a lock and key.

Illustration by Esther Park / Shutterstock / The Current

A new report from IAB Tech Lab highlights the shortcomings of Privacy Sandbox, an initiative led by Google following its decision to deprecate third-party cookies from its Chrome browser. The IAB Tech Lab conducted an in-depth analysis of the Privacy Sandbox with a task force of other ad-tech players across 65 companies over six months.

Released on Feb. 6, the report declares: “In its current form, the Privacy Sandbox may limit the industry’s ability to deliver relevant, effective advertising, placing smaller media companies and brands at a significant competitive disadvantage. The stringent requirements could throttle their ability to compete, ultimately impacting the industry’s growth.”

A Google spokesperson told Marketing Dive, in part, that the report “includes dozens of fundamental errors, inaccuracies and instances of incomplete information.”

For some in the industry, the IAB Tech Lab report isn’t necessarily a surprise. But it’s better late than never, says Sara Owens, SVP of analytics and data science at Media Matters Worldwide. “[Google] built a solution that’s going to work really well for them, and they’re just not sharing a lot of details, or they haven’t provided sufficient testing. And so other tech companies are now getting access to it, but they’re [realizing,] ‘This doesn’t really work for us,’” she says.

Owens says the IAB Tech Lab findings are an attempt to “hold Google accountable, to say, ‘Build something that’s going to work for all ad exchanges, all DSPs [demand-side platforms], all tech companies that don’t have their own browser,’” she adds.

The report raises a number of concerns, but industry experts called out the lack of transparency as chief among them.

“The Privacy Sandbox and its associated processes suffer from a lack of transparency for publishers,” Robert Blanck, general manager of advertising and e-commerce at Axel Springer, said in a statement to IAB Tech Lab. “Its aim to replicate the efficacy of third-party cookies has not been realized.”

According to the report, in Privacy Sandbox, Chrome “will have to make decisions about how to allocate resources that directly impact the ability of users of the Privacy Sandbox to execute campaigns successfully. […] Without transparency regarding how the browser will make these decisions and adequate monitoring to ensure they are applied accurately and consistently, participants will be entirely dependent on the Chrome browser to make decisions that adequately and fairly support them.”

In other words, advertisers could be at the mercy of Google. The tech giant may be deprecating cookies, but it will still be able to track its own logged-in users and collect data while others will not have that visibility.

“This independent industry report is damning. Google’s Privacy Sandbox either removes or severely degrades key aspects of online advertising functionality to the detriment of advertisers, agencies, and media owners,” James Rosewell, co-founder of the Movement for an Open Web, tells The Current.

“Under the full Sandbox platform, there are no means of accurately accrediting media effectiveness,” he adds.

Specifically, the IAB Tech Lab report finds that Privacy Sandbox falls short when it comes to supporting certain use cases such as lookalike modeling, frequency capping, and interoperability, among other problems. Given these technical shortcomings, it should serve as another call to action for advertisers to establish robust first-party data sets, says Amol Waishampayan, the chief product officer of

“If you’re a brand or an agency stewarding a brand’s initiatives, the focus on how you get more first-party data and bring it into the ecosystem is just going to become more and more crucial,” he says. “Because there is no magic wand that’s going to bridge together everything the way that the cookie did in the past.”

Though this is not the first time some players in the industry have questioned the motives behind Google’s Privacy Sandbox, IAB Tech Lab’s report could further heighten industry apprehensions.

IAB Tech Lab CEO Anthony Katsur commented in a press release, “Embracing Privacy Sandbox is a seismic shift in the advertising landscape, departing from the industry’s trajectory over the past 25 years. Our findings highlight that the industry isn’t ready yet and identify multiple challenges to implementation due to limitations in accomplishing key advertising objectives.”

Echoing this sentiment, Jeff Green, founder and CEO of The Trade Desk, wrote in an op-ed on The Current in January that Privacy Sandbox will especially hurt browser-based publishers like news publishers.

“For the small ad-funded internet companies that are compelled to do a lot of expensive development work with little hope of making more money, and for the publishers that will have to cede more control and revenue opportunity to Google with fading hopes of survival, I believe Google will unfortunately make new enemies,” Green wrote.

Additionally in a recent report, the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority raised concerns about Privacy Sandbox. It wants Google to ensure that Privacy Sandbox tools won’t reinforce the company’s own market position, and to address design issues with its targeting alternative that could hurt smaller ad tech firms. The organization suggested that Google “cannot proceed with third-party cookie deprecation until our concerns are resolved.”

For now, those with an investment in the future of identity remain skeptical about the value of Privacy Sandbox and its ability to deliver scale, accuracy, precision, and interoperability. “At a minimum, this thing is not ready and it’s not baked for an industry transition. And certainly there’s a long list of challenges out there that are being described,” says Fabrice Beer-Gabel, the VP of strategy and partnerships at Intent IQ.

“We think that identity is essential to anything cookieless to gain adoption by the ecosystem. It’s got to work for the buy side and for the sell side. So whatever it is, whatever that solution’s going to be, it has to somehow get buy-in from ad sellers and ad buyers in a broad sense, publishers and agencies and advertisers,” he says.

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