Apple continues to interfere with marketers’ use of browser-based digital advertising through a new set of restrictions coming to their Safari web browser. Their original decision to prevent the creation of third-party cookies created by their Safari browser on Mac was a setback for the open internet. So was the extension of this policy to deleting previously set first-party cookies on desktop (Mac) and mobile (iOS) environments via Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP), introduced in 2017 . This intentional deletion of cookies from consumers’ browsers eliminated an important client-side storage mechanism that has supported the web’s explosive growth since the first browser cookie was launched 25 years ago. While Sizmek believes the first-party/third-party distinction to be outdated and welcomes browsers that treat them identically, with such a long history of cookie use, it is surprising that these browser companies are not identifying or addressing any specific harms caused by cookies. Instead, they are creating an advantage for their own app stores, mobile app environments, and advertising business models. Such interference with consumer cookie storage has negative implications for marketers, the publishers they fund with advertising, and the consumers who benefit from free access to digital content.

Most prior efforts to work around Safari’s interference with third-party cookies relied on storing information in a separate storage mechanism, such as a subdomain of a first party—and Sizmek has given much consideration to this approach. Other workarounds rely on using mobile web clicks to fetch the mobile advertising ID from a previously installed mobile app SDK to temporarily associate that mobile web data to a device. Unfortunately, Apple has shown itself committed to evolving their ITP technology in a way that negates such alternate solutions.

It’s worth considering that while any solution based on first-party cookies will temporarily aid in cross-domain measurement, the approach is not without limitations. For browsers like Safari that block the creation of third-party cookies, measurement works properly only if the consumer has previously visited the first-party domain’s website. As most advertising aims to reach and attract new consumers who have never been to the marketer’s website, marketers will still have a fairly incomplete view of their audiences.

Since its inception, ITP placed limits on the use of first-party cookies accessed in third-party contexts. So while marketers could use cookies set when visitors first engaged with their own sites or implement solutions by walled gardens that leveraged their first-party cookies, this measurement suffered from sampling bias. That bias  was exacerbated by ITP’s deletion of even first-party cookies for consumers who did not have any interaction with that domain within 30 days. Apple’s ITP 2.1, announced in February 2019, goes one step further and will now delete all cookies within seven days of inactivity.

Marketers who consider first-party ad serving should also be aware of its unintended consequences. If marketers intend to use this data to inform their media strategies, they’ll find substantially lower match rates between their first-party cookies and their partners’ third-party cookies, which are crucial to the operation of the programmatic ecosystem. Accordingly, the double-digital decrease in match rates will negatively impact a marketer’s ability to effectively retarget existing customers, identify new prospects using the host of third-party audience data available, or optimize for frequency of exposure in non-Safari environments.  In other words, measurement of Safari users may improve with first -party ad serving, but it comes at the expense of optimizing media decisions for the majority of consumers, because Safari has a minority market share even in mobile environments.

For all of the attention given  ITP, the real focus of the discussion is Apple, Mozilla, Brave, and now Google creating cookie-free browsing environments. While these companies purport to be making these changes in the name of privacy,  the moves are not entirely altruistic. Moreover, these actions will cause substantial harm to consumers’ free access to the open internet as this handful of players attempts to control more and more of the consumer browsing experience to boost their own revenues.

For example, Apple has incentives to drive adoption of the AppStore, where they directly benefit from every digital sale or subscription. Mozilla, who makes the vast majority of revenue from advertising, stands to increase its sponsorship fee (for having Google as their default search engine) in direct proportion to any increase in its user base gleaned from advertising itself as a privacy-conscious browser. The newest browser on the block, Brave, is attempting to replace the adtech ecosystem with a new walled garden of their own. And finally, Google, should they take up blocking competitors’ cookies, would find themselves as the primary gatekeeper for nearly all digital advertising. This would be especially troubling now that Microsoft has decided to use Google’s Chromium engine inside all of their web browsing capabilities.

As the largest independent buy-side platform, Sizmek has long taken a leadership role promoting the importance of protecting consumer privacy without stifling innovation or competition or inhibiting free expression and access to digital content. As part of our efforts, our leaders have spoken with the major browser companies, and we are supporting industry dialog around the  importance of browser-based storage.

Sizmek has spent considerable effort evaluating first-party ad serving and other temporary workarounds to browser interference. Given the low ability to measure across multiple domains and the continued headwinds impacting targeting and optimization, we found these workarounds to be incomplete and unacceptable for our customers.

Moreover, any solution built in a vacuum will have limited potential. A Sizmek-only solution could certainly solve some of these problems, but it would not address the larger needs of the programmatic ecosystem upon which marketers rely. The digital advertising marketplace needs an industry-wide solution rather than a proprietary solution owned by a single company.

Accordingly, we’ve shifted our focus toward educating the marketplace on the importance of independent measurement, brand safety, and fraud protection and to dispelling misconceptions being propagated about consumer privacy.

Sizmek, in concert with other members of the IAB Tech Lab, is helping to lead an industry effort that will introduce new standards for user IDs, improve match rates, and address the misunderstood browser interference we see today. Because marketers rely on dozens of companies that must exchange information to support the targeting, measurement, and optimization required for effective digital advertising, we believe industry-wide standards are the best path forward and would come without the expense of a new ad tax.

Technical problems and solutions aside, it is vital that we all take steps to create a more fruitful dialog with one another and with consumers about the negative ramifications of these emerging  policies. We must also raise awareness of existing and potential regulations that protect consumers and highlight the benefits that come from advertising and an open internet.

Sizmek