Google Related Website Sets on Sandbox concerns publishers

Google plans to limit the sharing of reader data by publishers to groups of five sites under its proposed post-cookies regime.

The media giant is in the process of banning third-party cookies on its dominant Chrome browser platform. These cookies (programme files in browsers which store data) currently allow independent ad tech companies to share anonymous reader data across thousands of sites thereby allowing news publishers to better compete with platforms like Google and Facebook which dominate global advertising.

Google parent company Alphabet this week announced advertising revenue up 11% year-on-year to $65.5bn in the last quarter of 2023 at a time when publishers are seeing falls of a similar level. Declining online ad revenue has seen thousands of newsroom jobs cut over the past year.

Anonymous, untrackable website readers are difficult for publishers to monetise via advertising meaning many fear ad-funded online journalism is facing a fight for survival.

Google is planning to force news publishers to group their websites into sets of five if they want to use certain functions in its new Privacy Sandbox online advertising system, which it has proposed will replace cookie functionality. Each group of five will then be published on GitHub, the coding website, where anyone will be able to see them.

Several publishing executives who talked to Press Gazette said they were unhappy with the plan.

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Related Website Sets (RWS) has already become the subject of a letter of complaint to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) by a campaign group that believes it is an unwarranted interference in the publishing market, according to a copy seen by Press Gazette.

Google assumes that publishers will simply accept its monopoly gatekeeping power over how publishers group their brands together, and impose restrictions on how data generated by a publisher can be shared internally, the letter from the Movement for an Open Web (MOW) argues.

RWS presents publishers with a headache because most companies have more than five websites. International media holding groups and local newspaper chains can have hundreds. For those companies, “This isn’t a solution to share data across their domains that they would like to,” says Rob Beeler, founder of Beeler.Tech, an industry group for publishers. “Five won’t make sense for a lot of publishers, and therefore, they will ignore this feature.”

The Sandbox system is scheduled to replace third-party cookies, the ad-tracking devices in Google’s Chrome browser, by the end of this year. The intent is to create a new way for marketers to target users with ads on websites while keeping users’ identities private. Sandbox is a set of about 16 applications that publishers will be able to pick and choose from, depending on their advertising needs.

The RWS function in Sandbox allows publishers to track users across a maximum of five of their own websites. For instance, if a user logs in to one site, RWS will allow that login to carry over to other sites owned by that publisher. The intent is to prevent advertisers from endlessly following users from site-to-site.

Crucially, Google will decide which groups of five are legitimate and which are not.

MOW founder James Rosewell became disturbed by RWS when he applied for a set of eight placeholder sites devoted to ancient philosophers, and refused to sign Google’s “contribution licence” in his application. Unsurprisingly, Google declined to allow MOW’s sites into RWS.

“When they assessed our set, they also exerted editorial judgements over our website,” says Rosewell. “Because we just used template websites they asserted that that wasn’t a legitimate website.”

The sites “were licensed from ThemeForest [a WordPress site designer]… but they asserted that we’d committed copyright infringement despite [us] having a licence to use the material,” Rosewell said.

Five-site limit is to ‘prevent abuse’, says Google

Google told Press Gazette that every “legitimate” application for RWS has been approved so far. The limit of five is for “preventing abuse,” a spokesperson told Press Gazette. “We wouldn’t expect an average user would traverse the websites of several local newspapers owned by a single publisher during a particular session.”

The CMA is also concerned about the “arbitrary” power it grants Google. “It is clear a level of human intervention is still required in some cases. This will become a more urgent issue with scale as more submissions are made,” the CMA said in its 31 January update to its monitoring of Sandbox. “We are concerned that this introduces the possibility of arbitrary discretion” by executives at Google. 

“This limitation [on five sites] may affect publishers’ ability to build first-party audience data,” the CMA wrote.

The CMA is also concerned about the effect on the news business specifically. “Restrictions on the ability to combine data across sites disproportionately affects sites without access to logged-in users (eg news). Sites with a large proportion of logged-in users (eg Google) are less affected by the restrictions,” the CMA wrote.

Publishers struggling to understand Sandbox rules

Some publishing executives requested anonymity for this story because they were afraid of disagreeing with Google in public.

“The impact will be felt on some of these really big publishers that made their move over the years into programmatic, reliant on scale, and going global, who are no longer able to fully control the action around them in the way that they used to,” one exec at a global, household-name news brand told Press Gazette. “Google is beginning to dictate how they operate. There aren’t many alternatives.”

The Sandbox system is extremely complicated, and involves back-and-forth communications with Google via GitHub, these sources said. “I think I understand a lot, but not most of it. I am still struggled to understand all this,” one executive, who follows Sandbox development for a European news giant, said. “Who on this planet from a publisher is going to GitHub, reading it all, understanding it all, implementing it all. … We’re one of the biggest publishers and we’re even struggling to get this done.”

One concern is the bottleneck of approval requests that Google will experience if RWS takes off. “If you think about how many requests can come in, let’s assume if this really starts working and then Google will need to have dedicated people reviewing all this stuff, who’s going to review the legal aspect of ‘is that actually your domain’?” says Marko Markovic, founder of AdFixus, a company that provides a competing private, anonymous, trackable data service for publishers. His clients include 7News and Carsales in Australia.

The CMA’s report said it agrees. “We have raised specific stakeholder feedback with Google” on the issue of whether and how publishers can appeal RWS rejections by Google. 

Publishers are also worried that the experience for readers will be clunky — if a publisher tries to track a user onto a sixth site, their Chrome browser will automatically deliver a warning to the user. Many news sites are already cluttered with consent, permission, and GDPR popups. “We as publishers don’t want to do that. We have to and we have to even make it more complicated,” the European publishing exec said.

Publishers are also suspicious that the end result of Sandbox will be to solidify Google’s dominance of web advertising. In 2022, 87% of web advertising was spent with Google and Facebook, up from 61% in 2018.

“That’s exactly what Google’s doing,” said Don Marti, VP of ecosystem innovation at Raptive, a web advertising services provider.

CMA could stop Sandbox rollout

“The impact on the marketer is they’ve lost all their target audience [on news sites]. The safe bets are it [ad money] moves onto social channels, it moves into search, it moves into YouTube,” said the household-name brand executive.

In Google’s defence, its Chrome browser is the last of the major brands (after Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox) to get rid of cookies. And its development of Sandbox is being watched by the CMA for potential monopoly abuses. 

“They kind of want to make the Sandbox products good enough to encourage publishers not to go down alternative tracking routes,” according to Jamie MacEwan, senior media analyst at Enders Analysis. But they don’t want to kill web advertising, he said. “It’s not good for them and it’s not good for how it looks for regulators. But at the same time, some degradation they can get away with is acceptable for user security and privacy’s sake”.

RWS and Sandbox are still being developed. Sources told Press Gazette there were ongoing talks between the publishing industry and Google. The CMA remains prepared to stop the implementation of Sandbox if it doesn’t meet its concerns. “I don’t think the door is closed,” Beeler said. “Google doesn’t look like things are written in concrete.”

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