Google Blinks on Tracking

Mar 3rd, 2021 • Development • Allen Pike

In February, we wrote about Apple’s coming restrictions on SDKs that send data to companies who track users across websites, and the potential App Store rejections that may begin when those rules come into effect. We advised then then that all iOS apps that were using Google Analytics, Google’s Firebase, Flurry, or Facebook SDKs to prepare for potentially migrating off, in case neither Apple nor the trackers backed down.

Luckily for users of Google’s SDKs, it seems Google has blinked, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Google plans to stop selling ads based on individuals’ browsing across multiple websites, a change that could hasten upheaval in the digital advertising industry.

The Alphabet Inc. company said Wednesday that it plans next year to stop using or investing in tracking technologies that uniquely identify web users as they move from site to site across the internet.

Google has published some more details about this move, which doesn’t mention apps or Apple explicitly, but seems focused on disavowing the specific thing Apple has declared war on: tracking individual users across different companies’ services.

Today, we’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products.

As per that article, it seems like Google’s machine learning algorithms, such as Federated Learning of Cohorts, have evolved to the point where they can get almost as useful ad targeting from ostensibly anonymized data.

In addition, Flurry Analytics, another popular provider of analytics SDKs whose business model historically included selling data to advertisers, has also disavowed per-user tracking, at least when it comes to their iOS SDK:

Flurry will respect Apple’s policy requirement to not combine data across apps and websites owned by other companies.

Facebook’s story is a bit muddier – they’re certainly very publicly opposed to Apple’s moves, but their SDK docs now have reams of information on how to try to comply with the rules, including how to use a new feature they call “Aggregated Event Measurement”, along with fun guidance like this:

If you plan to deliver ads optimized for conversion events that occur on your business’s website, configure 8 preferred web conversion events per domain in Events Manager. Aggregated Event Measurement limits domains to 8 conversion events that can be used for campaign optimization. Facebook will initially configure the conversion events we believe are the most relevant to your business based on your activity. Ad sets optimizing for a conversion event that is no longer available will be paused when Aggregated Event Measurement launches in early 2021. While not usable for optimization, events not configured as one of the 8 conversion events for a domain can still be used for partial reporting in Ads Manager and website Custom Audience targeting.

Got it?

Letter of the law, or spirit of the law?

The upshot is that even Facebook, the company with the most to lose, seems to be moving towards compliance. That said, by the letter of Apple’s guidelines, it’s not yet clear whether Facebook’s half-hearted approach will net its SDK consumers an App Review surprise come iOS 14.5.

Even with Apple’s new “Additional guidance” at the end of their documentation on App Privacy labels, it can still be pretty challenging to determine if you’ve set up one of these SDKs to fully meet Apple’s “does not track you” seal of approval. Currently the App Store asks developers to indicate that an app “tracks you” if it is “sharing data with entities who display third-party ads”. It seems like this would apply to using any SDK owned by Google, regardless of their tracking behaviour. However, Google and Flurry have now both very publicly disavowed tracking users across sites, which seems like it would make their SDKs okay by the iOS 14.5 rules.

Clearly, some clarification from Apple is needed here.

Still though, this progress seems to indicate that the feared SDKpocalypse will probably not occur. While more privacy-conscious and full-featured analytics tools like MixPanel are still a win for a lot of teams, adtech-funded SDKs seem likely to continue on in many iOS apps, now that it’s clear per-user tracking is not a hill that Google wants to die on.

Facebook, however? The jury’s still out.

Allen Pike • CEO