July 2020 – When Google Chrome announced in January that third-party cookies would be phased out in two years, senior ad tech leaders joined the W3C – the group that creates common standards for web browsers – to find ways for browsers to support advertising use cases such as targeting, attribution and frequency capping.

Now six months have passed since Chrome’s announcement. Only 18 months remain before Chrome joins its fellow browsers in blocking cross-site tracking.

So as the W3C Improving Web Advertising Business Group stays mired in the theoretical and spends time explaining how advertising works to the browser community, panic is mounting.

Ad tech businesses are about to be upended by the loss of cross-site tracking, and a comprehensive solution is still out of sight.

Marketers and publishers are mostly absent from the business group – either because they think ad tech companies will solve the problem or because they don’t have the resources to participate, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

More puzzlingly, the Google ads team has been absent too, ceding the conversation to Chrome at a time when the ad tech community sees Google’s ads business as their closest ally in communicating the importance of advertising to browser engineers.

“My view is that it’s not going very well,” said Magnite Chief Technology Officer Tom Kershaw, who has been devoting eight to 10 hours a week on the W3C. He gives the group an “A” for effort but a “D” for delivery. “There are no actionable proposals on the table, and nothing we can try in the real world. And 18 months goes quick.”

There’s been “no tangible difference” since the start, added PubMatic CTO John Sabella.

So far, much of the discussion has centered on proposals in Google Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox, a group of ideas that solve for some advertising use cases, for example, moving ad auctions to browsers and adding noise to targeting groups. But few of these concepts have advanced since their introduction, in the opinion of the members interviewed.

“When we say sandbox, in tech, it’s things you want to touch and feel and play with. It’s nowhere near that yet,” Sabella said.

Even if the best-case scenario happens and all the privacy sandbox proposals become standards in the next 18 months, it still won’t restore online advertising to the way it operates now.

“We will only see maybe 60% to 70% of business models survive in the sandbox ecosystem,” said Adform Chief Strategy Officer Jochen Schlosser.

What’s more, in order to protect their users’ privacy, browsers increasingly believe they should oversee critical functions – such as running ad auctions – instead of ad tech companies. Ad tech companies, used to autonomy, have been pushing back against some of the changes that shift control to the browsers in the early months of discussions within the group.

The Process

The more than 200 members of the W3C’s Improving Web Advertising Business Group attend weekly conference calls and share code and ideas on GitHub, with the goal of establishing a dialogue between the ad tech and browser communities about what is needed to sustain an ad-supported open web. They also share what problems they need solved – such as the nuances of ad targeting, attribution and ad auctions.

“A lot of the process is getting a shared set of terminology and practices and needs, before anyone can build features to meet these needs,” said Wendy Seltzer, strategy lead and counsel at the W3C and chair of the advertising group.

The W3C primarily recommends technical specifications browsers can voluntarily adopt, Seltzer said. Business groups such as Improving Web Advertising are often the first step in a multi-step process.

Topics that graduate out of that group are incubated in W3C’s Privacy Working Community Group or the WICG (Web Platform Incubator Community Group). Those working groups write the spec, go through reviews and polish the tech with interoperability testing. Along the way, ideas must build consensus and be judged “win-win-wins” in order to proceed.

How long this process takes is a mystery to those in ad tech, who are still learning the unfamiliar politics of browsers. They shared uncertainty about how many ideas become standards and how long it takes.

They can only look at precedent. “SameSite cookies are a singular change, and it’s taken them months and months to roll out and test that one feature,” said CafeMedia Chief Strategy Officer Paul Bannister, a W3C member. By contrast, he added, Privacy Sandbox would require around 14 changes within the next 20 months. By Q1 of next year, he’d like to see testing of the features in the Privacy Sandbox meet the early 2022 deadline for dropping third-party cookies.

But even after testing is complete, businesses need time to adopt the new specs.

“It’s a bit concerning, from my perspective, what we are going to see on the other end of the timeline – if participants would have sufficient time to reconstruct their businesses,” said Ian Meyers, identity senior product manager at LiveRamp.

Where’s Google Ads?

Google’s advertising team has kept an extremely low profile in the group, puzzling other members.

Though Google as a whole counts 19 members in the group, and Chrome engineers actively participate, the eight W3C advertising business group members interviewed agreed that the Google ads team is silent on the weekly progress calls. They don’t comment on any of the GitHub contributions and haven’t made any contributions themselves.

Additionally, some W3C members say that Chrome engineers often ask questions that suggest a puzzling – or perhaps even performative – lack of domain understanding of how the ads business works or the value created by advertising.

“I hope they talk to each other internally,” said Criteo senior product manager and W3C member Arnaud Blanchard. “I would suggest they talk a little bit more, because they would see what the Chrome guys propose would break a lot of things: If the browser does the auction, I don’t know what the value of AdX is in  this world.”

But perhaps not talking to each other is the point.

“They have a sizable antitrust target on their back, so having as much of this conversation as possible in public benefits them,” said MediaMath CTO Wilfried Schobeiri.

He, along with others, noted a corporate carefulness to the Chrome team’s speech on the weekly calls.

“There is a story of Chinese walls. But if it’s two different companies, they should both join [the conversation],” said one frustrated W3C member, who didn’t want to publicly share a negative opinion of a business partner. “The biggest publisher and tech company on the planet is not visible there, and that is completely insane.”

The Google ads team disputes that it’s absent from the W3C, pointing to a GitHub page from two months ago where they encouraged testing RTB without personalization.

“While Chrome has played an active role in W3C for years and is driving our efforts within the forum, both Chrome and Google ads are active participants in the forum and share a common commitment to ideas for a Privacy Sandbox,” said Chetna Bindra, Google senior product manager for user trust, privacy and transparency, in a statement. These experiments are already underway, she added.

But the W3C members giving up time and resources contributing to the business group want more from Google, whose might would come in handy.

So they’re urging the Google ads team to get off the bench and help them architect a solution that preserves an ad-supported open web and the livelihood of all those who rely on it.

“I would welcome their contributions to the group,” said Joshua Koran, head of Zeta Innovation Labs and W3C member. “I am surprised given their market share they haven’t taken a more active role in the conversations.”

Browser Power Plays 

The advertising members of the business group are also grappling with how the new standards shift power to the browser in the name of privacy.

Web advertising has always been an anything goes affair, where trackers can be shared with hundreds of companies.

“The problem stems from what the technology allowed before,” MediaMath’s Schobeiri said.

Now that data will be locked up to protect user privacy, who holds the key?

The browsers say it’s them.

“There is an emerging consensus that the browser is the user’s agent, and should help the user protect against individually linked tracking across the web without user consent,” W3C’s Seltzer said.

Case in point: The privacy sandbox proposal TURTLEDOVE moves the auction to the browser.

But without doing some of the auction in the server, ad tech companies will be exposed to security issues and it will take too long for pages to load, said Criteo senior product manager Arnaud Blanchard.

Blanchard co-authored a counterproposal, SPARROW, which introduced the idea of a non-browser gatekeeper as well as a server-side auction outside of the browser.

W3C members praised the SPARROW proposal, but don’t see the browser community embracing a standard where they give up control.

The proposed changes in the privacy sandbox are just another example of the “platform economy,” where companies must rent consumers from platforms, Adform’s Schlosser said. “The vested interest of the publishers is to stay in front of the consumer. And that is not what the sandboxes are trying to build.”

But while he disagrees with how much power shifts to the browser in many of the sandbox proposals, Schlosser feels more closely aligned with the browser community on the issue of privacy. Having gone through GDPR, any pushback over privacy is a battle already lost.

“I’m 100% sure the old times are over,” Schlosser said. But he sees other advertising companies in the group more resistant to privacy-focused changes. “Maybe it’s just for political negotiation purposes but the gap is huge.”

The future

There are multiple paths toward solving the problem of a common advertising standard across browsers.

If the W3C can solve for a handful of online advertising use cases by early 2022, marketers will be able to rely on a common standard across all browsers to do some level of audience targeting or attribution, for example. But they should expect these solutions to look and work much differently than they did before.

A second path includes tech solutions that work with existing browser standards – like ones that use first-party cookies. However, only a couple of companies such as Google and Facebook have first-party identity at scale, so a lack of new open browser standards could push more marketing dollars into those environments. Smaller publishers don’t have the scale to create an enticing identity solution for marketers.

In the third path, each browser could individually come up with ways to help advertisers and publishers make money on the open web (or not), just as they individually made the decision to block third-party cookies.

Google Chrome, for example, could develop advertising use cases that work just on its browser. Standards developed by the W3C can be implemented at any time – though it’s most encouraged after it reaches the recommendation stage, Seltzer.

The ultimate solve would be if Google develops (and shares) a browser-specific, privacy-safe identifier – a weed of a rumor that keeps reappearing as soon as it’s killed.

Though such an ID could perhaps save online advertising in its current form, members in the group say that it’s abundantly clear a browser ID is not on the table. It’s better to just embrace a future with privacy at its core. (And to expect the mobile ad ID to disappear in a few years too).

What web browsers will do to support online advertising 18 months from now is a mystery to those closest to the browsers – so they’re advising everyone in advertising to buckle in and start asking who’s in the driver’s seat.