Divergence in how digital media giants define privacy may cause headaches for marketers, writes Alex Brownsell.

Perhaps it was a coincidence – most likely it wasn’t. On a single day last week, both Google and Facebook decided to present two very distinct visions of the future of privacy and personalisation.

Both businesses are trying to shape discourse around the use of consumer data and identity in advertising – a topic we will return to with a dedicated WARC Guide in July. Watch this space.

Google and Facebook are by no means the only players attempting to mould the market to suit their purposes, of course. As others have pointed out, Apple’s privacy ethos implies that it’s fine to collect as much data about users as is technologically possible, just as long as you don’t share it with anyone else.  

Ethics aside, this philosophical divergence is likely to exacerbate differences in the tools that brands will need to use to engage audiences across platforms. And more complexity means bigger headaches for marketers.

Google: The clock is ticking on individual-level targeting

Google Ads’ Marketing Livestream event further underlined the company’s determination to shift away from identifiers like third-party cookies.

Jerry Dischler, VP/GM of Google’s Ads business, did not mince his words: “Once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternative identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web. And we won't use those identifiers in our products.

“Third-party cookies and other proposed identifiers that some in the industry are advocating for do not meet the rising expectations consumers have when it comes to privacy. They will not stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions. They simply cannot be relied on in the long term.”

In other words, the company ultimately plans to reject user-level identifiers – including universal ID solutions – wherever they come into contact with Google products.

Dischler urged the industry to participate in Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative, and to engage with prospective solutions, like FLoC, which group users together based on characteristics and behaviours.

Why? Because, he argued, the “implied contract” between users – that content and services are supplied in exchange for personal data – has been ripped up, and the industry needs to take “bold action” to regain consumer trust. There were attacks on rival media owners that sell personal information, and define audiences against criteria such as race, religion and sexual orientation.

“People are no longer satisfied with the old way of doing things. They want more assurance that the bargain is working in their favour,” Dischler added. “The path is clear to dramatically improve privacy, [in a way] that enables advertisers to deliver business results today, tomorrow, and in the years ahead.”

Facebook: Personalisation in a privacy-compliant manner

A few hours before Google’s broadcast, Facebook (in EMEA, at least) took the opportunity to share its quite different view of the marketplace.

Indeed, whoever named Facebook’s event – ‘The future of digital advertising: can personalisation & privacy co-exist?’ – is patently no fan of Betteridge's law of headlines.

To the social network’s credit, it offered little defence of the current system of audience tracking. “Nobody is happy with the status quo, including Facebook,” said Ben Savage, a Senior Software Engineer at Facebook.

However, rather than pulling up the drawbridge, the company believes that stakeholders should do what is necessary to maintain a “free” and “democratising” internet. “Some [parties] are engaging in a collaborative fashion; others are not,” said Savage, in a thinly-veiled swipe at Apple.

“What kind of future do we want for the web? Because I don’t want to see a world where only the largest, with the biggest access to data, will survive.”

At the heart of Facebook’s argument is an insistence that emerging technologies will enable a “best of both worlds”, in which users can maintain data privacy, while brands will continue to be able to target communications at relevant audiences.

Savage outlined three innovations he believes may be key to achieving this goal.

  1. Secure Multiparty Cooperation (MPC): An evolution of data modelling going back half a century, in which two (or more) companies can combine to aggregate and analyse statistics without the data changing hands.

  1. Blind signatures: In essence, the use of cryptography to transform an event (or signature) into something new, which cannot be linked to the original. This may be particularly valuable in the battle against fraud. You can read more here.

  1. On-device learning: Not entirely dissimilar to Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals, in which personally identifiable information (PII) remains on the user’s device. In theory, this would allow off-Facebook behavioural data to be combined with in-app/on-site behaviour, without that data ever “touching” a Facebook server.

What does it mean for brands?

It’s easy to mistrust the intentions of an organisation that might make $100bn in global ad revenues this year, but Facebook has a point when it says that brands both big and small stand to suffer in a closed-shop ecosystem in which only those with the deepest pockets can reach their customers.

At the same time, consumers have become suspicious of how their data is used (and, on occasion, abused) by media owners like Facebook, and with some of the industry’s clumsy use of retargeting. A scenario in which the digital ad market snaps back to a lookalike version of its current incarnation would certainly benefit Facebook, but it’s less likely to be welcomed by users.

Either way, advertisers need to make themselves heard in this debate, and to call out naked self-service wherever they see it. The stakes are too high to allow the future of the internet to be reshaped to suit the interests of one or two megalithic corporations. 

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