As CMA’s Privacy Sandbox Probe gathers momentum, here’s what marketers must know

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Today is D-Day for marketers to voice their take on Google’s alternative to third-party cookies for the U.K.’s Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA). It’s their shot to shape the watchdog’s probe into whether Google’s plan is playing fair. With time running out, let’s size up just how far this investigation has come.

Hold up, what’s this deadline?

The deadline was established by the CMA after its latest quarterly update on the investigation. It’s calling for industry feedback regarding concerns highlighted in that report. Whatever input is provided will shape the watchdog’s analysis of whether Google’s alternatives to third-party cookies pose anti-competitive risks.

Ok, can your bring me up to speed on the investigation?

Well, it kicked off back in 2021 when the CMA decided to dig into whether Google’s own alternatives to third-party cookies in its Chrome browser are fair. Since then, the tech giant has agreed to stick to a bunch of commitments while developing the sandbox to make sure everything’s on the level. These commitments even included a standstill period (originally set at 60 days, but the CMA could extend it to 120 days) for the CMA to size up the Privacy Sandbox’s progress and any potential industry shake-ups. Google has promised to address all concerns raised by the CMA during this period before moving forward with cookie deprecation.

Concerns? Absolutely. 

The CMA has been juggling a multitude of worries since day one of the investigation, but now they’ve spelled them out crystal clear in their latest quarterly update. What’s even more significant is that they’re not just listing problems; they’re dishing out recommendations for Google on how to tackle them. 

But let’s not kid ourselves, some of these issues are easier said than done. Take, for instance, the dilemma of Google reaping the benefits of granular profiling and targeting tools while throttling rivals’ access to the same data. It’s a complex issue, partly because the sandbox isn’t a carbon copy of all the functions currently served by third-party cookies. And truth be told, it was never meant to be.

Remember, it’s that wild, unbridled profiling and targeting based on excessive data sharing and misuse across the ad industry that kicked off this whole mess. The CMA is well aware of this and has made it clear that their main concern isn’t about the industry losing some money — it’s about whether Google’s actions are shady enough to cause significant losses to advertisers and publishers. 

In other words, the CMA doesn’t have a threshold figure it’s going to base its decision on?

That’s right. The CMA is considering numerous factors, including the financial losses across the ad industry, the impact on privacy, and, of course, competition. That’s why the CMA is placing so much emphasis on ensuring that the cookie alternatives within the sandbox are as effective as possible.

Alright, got it. So, where’s the CMA’s investigation now?

It’s at a critical juncture, especially since Google has already removed third-party cookies from one percent of traffic in Chrome. This move provides the ad industry with something to test and form an opinion on. Sure, there could be more traffic to test it on, but that one percent without third-party cookies should offer ad execs some perspective to assess the sandbox. That’s why the CMA’s call for additional feedback on the sandbox is crucial. It’s a chance for ad execs to share what they’ve learned from testing some of the alternatives, particularly now that they’re arguably more stable than ever before.

Has the CMA made this sort of request for help before?

Sort of. The CMA has been open to feedback on the sandbox from the ad industry from the outset. Think of the latest request as a reminder of that. 

Wait, does this mean there’s a happy ending on the horizon? Third-party cookies will be gone by the end of 2024?

Let’s not jump to conclusions just yet. There’s still a lot that could unfold between now and then. However, the CMA has made it clear that they will keep the dialogue open with Google regarding these concerns, which they believe the tech company understands how to address. The CMA’s next quarterly update will shed some light on whether that’s actually the case. It will tell readers how those discussions with Google are going, provide progress on addressing those concerns, and offer guidance on the feedback requested from the ad industry.

What does that mean?

The CMA has said that it wants to have all the information on how the sandbox will impact the ad market by the middle of 2024. Before reaching a decision based on this evidence, it needs to be sufficiently assured that there are no competition concerns, or that there are viable ways of managing them. It’s possible that the sandbox hasn’t been fully developed by this point, especially considering Google already has changes planned for next year. However, this may not necessarily impede the approval process. The key factors at play are the earlier concerns, such as who will govern the sandbox once third-party cookies are eliminated.

If the CMA isn’t satisfied with what it sees, then the ad industry might have to wait longer for third-party cookies to disappear. The CMA has the authority to request Google to halt the rollout if necessary, a commitment that Google has agreed to uphold, at least until February 2028.

On the issue of governance, a lot of people have an issue with it?

That’s understandable, considering the ad industry’s skepticism about whether Google has ulterior motives with the sandbox. It’s no wonder then that the CMA is discussing with Google the possibility of involving third parties in governing its alternatives.

Let’s say third-party cookies are deprecated, does the CMA stop monitoring the situation?

No, not at all. The CMA’s involvement doesn’t end there. In fact, it will persist in monitoring how all aspects of the sandbox are implemented over time. For more insight into how this will unfold, we’ll have to wait for the next quarterly report.

Regardless of the outcome, is someone going to be upset?

That’s inevitable with big, complex issues like the sandbox. Different stakeholders have different desires, so the chances of satisfying everyone are slim to none. Take the sandbox’s response to contextual targeting, for example: Topics. Some ad execs want more granular topics, while others prefer less. The CMA understands this dynamic. Its decision will be less about pleasing everyone and more about ensuring that whatever happens is in the best interest of the ad industry as a whole.

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