What Does Apple's No-Tracking Feature Mean For Ad Tech?

Continuing its efforts to promote itself as privacy-friendly, Apple made an announcement this week that its Safari browser will block autoplay video ads and incorporate a no-tracking feature that will hide consumers’ Web browsing from ad targeting.

These moves are bound to affect an already beleaguered ad-tech sector.

Apple said the next version of Safari will use machine learning to determine which ads are using third-party tracking tools that share data with other parties. The browser will disable the tracking as it learns which ads are sending data to third-party tracking tools.

Safari already has a longstanding practice of blocking third-party cookies. So how is Apple’s latest tactic different?

“What’s different is that third-party cookies are a very technical and specific type of cookie. This is a more sophisticated and intelligent version of protecting consumer trust from tracking,” said Jason Kint, CEO, Digital Content Next.

For ad-tech firms without a direct relationship with consumers, moves like Apple’s make it harder to use an audience’s data. “Any ad-tech company that doesn’t have a direct relationship with the consumer is at a disadvantage,” Kint said. “I think the painful reality for ad tech is that there’s a consumer trust issue that’s playing out. The industry has continually failed to address it.”

Some industry insiders believe ad-tech firms continue to circumvent Safari's default cookie blocking by redirecting user calls through first-party cookies, or using various hacks and workarounds.

Kint said Safari on its own doesn’t represent enough market share to cause ad-tech concern.

It’s also not clear if the new feature applies only to the desktop version of Safari or mobile. If it extends to mobile, that could be a problem. Still, “the real fear is, Apple’s been very focused on consumers and privacy, in particular. As much as this is addressing a real need, it’s a clear point of exposure for Google and Facebook,” Kint said.

Google removed do-not-track features from its mobile browser early last year, going in the opposite direction from Apple. “Data is their oil,” Kint said of Google.

Google’s Chrome browser has some 60% of the market, while Microsoft's Internet Explorer has 17.55%, its Edge browser has 5.63%, and Safari has 3.56%, according to NetMarketShare.

“This is not ad blocking,” Jules Polonetsky, CEO, Future of Privacy Forum, said of the new version of Safari’s “intelligent tracking” protection, on a Facebook Live Forum. “Safari is the only browser that blocks third-party cookies by default already. This affects companies that work around third-party cookie blocking,” he said.

The new capability is said to extend both to Safari desktop and mobile. Since iOS has a much larger impact in the mobile ecosystem, and iOS mobile browsers are considered to deliver a more affluent audience for marketers, Apple's move is significant For some companies, the new feature may not matter because tracking has always been limited by Apple; for others using workarounds or hacks, the feature is likely to have a major impact, Polonetsky said.

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