Google wants to figure out how to serve Android users ads while minimizing tracking

AsApple pushes on with its anti-tracking features on iOS and Google continues to refine its privacy sandbox for serving targeted web ads without third-party cookies, it’s time for Android to come into the spotlight. Google announced today it’s starting a “multi-year initiative to build the Privacy Sandbox on Android, with the goal of introducing new, more private advertising solutions.”

The existing Privacy Sandbox is itself a set of proposals that would eventually grow into a set of open standards Google hopes the industry will adopt. Last year, one of the primary approaches Google was putting forward was FLoC (or Federated Learning of Cohorts) that would group people with thousands of other users with similar browsing histories. That was replaced last month by Topics API, which let Chrome use your browsing history to serve publishers a list of five subjects it determines you’re interested in, again based on your browsing history.

What that demonstrates is the current fluidity of Privacy Sandbox, which is a collection of ideas at the moment. In today’s announcement, vice president of product management for Android security and privacy Anthony Chavez wrote that “these solutions will limit sharing of user data with third parties and operate without cross-app identifiers.” That would include advertising IDs. Chavez said “we’re also exploring technologies that reduce the potential for covert data collection, including safer ways for apps to integrate with advertising SDKs.”

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

But there are no real concrete methods actually being executed right now, and Google is in the design and testing stage. Starting today, the company said developers can “review our initial design proposals and share feedback on the Android developer site.” It is planning to “release developer previews over the course of the year, with a beta release by the end of the year.” Google also promised “regular updates on designs and timelines.”

In the meantime, the company said it will continue to “support existing ads platform features for at least two years, and we intend to provide substantial notice ahead of any future changes.”

Google also referenced Apple’s approach on iOS today (without naming the iPhone maker), acknowledging that “other platforms have taken a different approach to ads privacy.” But Chavez described that approach as “bluntly restricting existing technologies used by developers and advertisers.” The company believes it still needs to provide a way for businesses to serve targeted ads to users and to make sure those ads are relevant.

Chavez added that “we know this initiative needs input from across the industry in order to succeed,” and the company included statements from many partners in its news post today. These include Snap, Duolingo, Rovio, Activision Blizzard and seven other app makers, who each expressed similar sentiments about respecting the privacy needs of Android app users. Google’s Privacy Sandbox has already faced regulatory scrutiny from the EU and the UK, with the latter’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) having accepted Google’s latest proposals last week.

Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done while the internet’s giants and the ad industry figure out how best to balance personalized ads with user privacy, and Google’s inclusion of Android in its considerations is happening not a moment too soon.

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