Apple’s SKAdNetwork vs. Google’s Privacy Sandbox

By Ionut Ciobotaru, CPO at Verve Group

The ad tech industry has spent the past year closely monitoring and digesting updates around Apple’s SKAdNetwork and Google Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox, knowing that both carry dramatic implications for how our industry will gather consumer data and run targeted advertising in the future. Both tools — and indeed, both companies — state their end goal as being the preservation of user privacy. But, as we all know, there are many potential paths to any one destination.

So, what do SKAdNetwork and the Privacy Sandbox really mean for our industry? And what do they tell us about how each company is thinking about the broader digital landscape in the future? Let’s take a look at some important similarities and differences.

Choosing a Path Toward Privacy

Third-party cookies have traditionally been used to track user behavior across different websites. As a part of Google’s decision to discontinue support for third-party cookies in Chrome starting next year, the company has developed its Privacy Sandbox as a proposed privacy-friendly alternative. One of the key concepts within the Sandbox is Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), a new way for businesses to reach people with relevant content and ads by clustering large groups of people with similar interests. As Google notes, “This approach effectively hides individuals ‘in the crowd’ and uses on-device processing to keep a person’s web history private on the browser.” From the outset of this initiative, Google has stressed the importance of working with the web community to develop new standards that “advance privacy, while continuing to support free access to content.”

Meanwhile, as Google prepares the industry for a world without third-party cookies, Apple’s iOS 14.5 update now requires apps to ask new users to opt-in to IDFA collection by advertisers. To date, Apple’s IDFA has been used in a fashion similar to third-party cookies when it comes to tracking and identifying users across apps. This move is expected to dramatically reduce the ubiquitous access to the IDFA relied on by mobile app developers today. In light of the deprecation of the IDFA, Apple’s SKAdNetwork (which has been around since 2018) will become a much more important attribution alternative moving forward. As such, SKAdNetwork is regularly undergoing updates, including the addition of support for view-through attribution for video, audio, and interactive ads in apps.

Both the Privacy Sandbox and SKAdNetwork are in varying phases of testing and adoption as we speak. Meanwhile, both Apple and Google are facing their share of legal challenges — primarily antitrust allegations — in the U.S and globally as it relates to the deprecation of third-party cookies and the IDFA. While these legal challenges might slow down certain plans, the consensus seems to be that the long-term loss of these mechanisms within the attribution arsenal is inevitable.

The Vital Differences Between the Privacy Sandbox and SKAdNetwork

The obvious main difference between Google’s Privacy Sandbox and Apple’s SKAdNetwork is that the former focuses on the browser (i.e., web) while the latter focuses on the in-app environment (i.e., mobile). That said, Google might look to leverage part of the Privacy Sandbox solution for its future deprecation of GAID (Google’s version of the IDFA).

In terms of use cases, in addition to user privacy, the Privacy Sandbox’s key areas of coverage include interest group assignment and targeting, ad delivery, measurement and reporting, and others like WebID and trust tokens. Overall, the Privacy Sandbox includes many different solutions for different areas; FLoC and FLEDGE are just two of them. FLEDGE is Google’s solution for remarketing, a concept that SKAdNetwork doesn’t support at all (at least so far). Likewise, Google just announced that it plans to enhance the use of Publisher Provided Identifiers (PPIDs) in Ad Manager, another move that is in direct contrast to Apple’s current strategy with SKAdNetwork.

Timing-wise, Apple has given developers and ad networks very little time to prepare for these paradigm-shifting changes. Between the IDFA announcement in June and the go-live date of April 26, 2021, companies have had just over ten months to prepare — and that’s only after a postponement. The original preparation window was to be only three months. On the flip side, Google gave the industry more than two years’ warning on its third-party cookie shift — though it is now seemingly turning the tide of the conversation in what feels like the 11th hour.

A Crack in Google’s Collaborative Approach

Beyond the above distinctions, there’s an important philosophical consideration to watch when it comes to the development of the Privacy Sandbox and SKAdNetwork. That consideration is openness. When it comes to the future of preserving user privacy, one player — Google — has been collaborative with open standards and the industry. The other player — Apple — has not. Unfortunately, Google is showing signs of reversing course in this regard.

Google has historically been a far more open organization than Apple, which is one reason that the company’s latest announcement that it will not develop an alternative to target individuals across its browsers surprised many people. It was expected that the company would stay true to its industry roots and facilitate the broader needs of the web community in a way that Apple historically has not. For example, Android has always been a more open system than iOS when it comes to operating across devices and permitting integrations.

Google started working on the Privacy Sandbox some time ago and initially welcomed discussion and feedback to improve its solutions and make them work across stakeholders. It initially appeared that the Sandbox would be built on open standards and be fundamentally an open-source initiative. Now, that approach is in question. Meanwhile, Apple’s SKAdNetwork and privacy practices started off as and continue to be quite sanctimonious, allowing Apple to leverage and profit from user data. Additionally, it’s forbidding access and insights to the many publishers, advertisers, and ad networks that depend on Apple’s devices and software.

Google’s Privacy Sandbox is still being developed, and ultimately it must prove its effectiveness and efficiency at protecting user privacy while still enabling targeted and personalized online experiences. That said, as a solution, its future as an open, collaborative initiative true to Google’s principles is in jeopardy. It would benefit the entire industry if the spirit of Google’s Privacy Sandbox were to align with the principles of collaboration that have built the dynamic and valuable digital ecosystems that we rely on today. There’s still time for Google to embrace this welcoming, collaborative model as it has in other areas, and the industry is watching closely to see which path the company ultimately chooses.