Apple is considering a move into the online advertising market, according to plans lodged on a coding forum and seen by Press Gazette.
Apple devices currently prioritise user privacy over supporting advertising, making them a poor source of revenue for ad-funded news publishers.
An engineer at Apple now appears to have proposed a new system named “Private Ad Measurement” (PAM) that would allow publishers and advertisers to track the performance of their online campaigns on Apple devices, via apps and on the Safari browser, whilst preserving the privacy of readers.
The development comes as Google begins to phase out the third-party cookies on its dominant Chrome web browser that underpin online advertising. Apple’s Safari browser already does not support cookies.
PAM would identify the ads and sites that generate the most and least sales or signups for advertisers. The data would be delivered to both the marketer and the publisher where the ad appeared.
Crucially, the original data would be stored only on the user’s device, not in the servers of the publisher or the advertiser. That data would be then be encrypted and presented to the advertiser and publisher in aggregate so that it would impossible to identify any individual user.
The proposal, which was presented to adtech insiders as a new industry-wide standard, is surprising because Apple generally prefers to conduct its research and development in strict secrecy. It rarely talks about potential new products before they are launched. The company declined multiple requests for comment.
If the proposal was adopted widely, it might also give news publishers and advertisers better data that they could use inside Apple’s Safari browser and iOS mobile app environment, making ads more effective there.
Currently, Apple restricts the use of tracking and targeting data on its devices, making it hard for publishers to attract advertising money targeting Apple users.
After Google removes third-party cookies from Chrome later this year, any new system that delivers more information to marketers and publishers about how their advertising performs would be welcomed by the news industry, sources told Press Gazette.
From that perspective, PAM looks like a competing standard to Google’s Privacy Sandbox, which the search giant hopes to launch in full before the end of the year, one source told Press Gazette.
“We had a meeting with the author of this proposal and he told us that his goal is to propose something for the open advertising industry in order to perform reporting attribution,” Maxime Vono, a senior researcher at Criteo AI Lab told Press Gazette. Criteo is an online ad platform that handles $4bn per year in spending. “PAM actually is a proposal for the whole advertising industry,” they said, adding: “We are keen basically to see the future development of PAM and to contribute to the discussion”.
The PAM proposal was first made public on coding website Github in a forum used by members of the Private Advertising Technology Community Group, which is part of the W3C industry group for online publishers, developers, and advertisers. The group includes members from Apple, Google, Mozilla (Firefox), Microsoft and the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, which monitors proposals to head off monopoly abuses.
The PAM proposal does not contain any brand names — like Apple, Safari or iPhone — that might have made it obvious where it originated. The only identifying clue was an Apple logo on a PDF attached to the main proposal.
Aram Zucker-Scharff, the lead privacy engineer at The Washington Post, asked the author in a comments section on Github if he was from Apple. “Yes ‘we’ is Apple WebKit. Sorry for not being clear,” Lucas Winstrom replied. Winstrom’s Linkedin profile says he is a data science and machine learning manager at Apple. He could not be reached for comment.
“Our goal is to define a system that can measure the effectiveness of advertisements on the Web without tracking users across websites,” Winstrom’s proposal says. “Our goal at each stage is to only transmit the minimum information necessary to perform the attribution measurement and nothing else.”
It is unclear how far along Apple is in the development of PAM.
At an “ad hoc” meeting of the Private Advertising Technology Community Group (PATCG) on 19 October, Wistrom said he was “not married to ‘PAM’ or [the] way it is written”. He said he had not yet put in the work needed to get PAM to function on Apple’s Safari browser, according to minutes of the meeting seen by Press Gazette.
Reaction to the proposal from the PATCG has so far been positive, according to Filippo Trocca, chief innovation data officer at Datrix, an AI company. He called it “very strong”. “All the members of the group are quite OK with the proposal from Apple,” he said.
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