In my post on setting up Onetrust, I mention how problematic Autoblock can be, but it comes up often enough that I decided it merited its own post, because enabling any Consent Management Platform (CMP)’s Autoblock functionality is a big deal, with far-reaching implications.
There are two approaches to consent management:
- Use your Consent Management Platform to create banners and keep track of user’s consent status. The CMP doesn’t affect what tags fire at all, it merely keeps track of user’s consent. Then you use your Tag Manager to get info from the CMP about what has been consented, then use conditions in your marketing tag rules, and the ECID opt-in service for Analytics and Target, to determine what tags are ok to fire.
- Use the Consent Management Platform to create banners, track user’s consent status, and block any files or cookies that try to load without consent. Your Tag Management System has essentially no control. You don’t have to mess with extra conditions in Launch (which some see as a perk), but someone has to maintain the CMS so it knows which scripts and cookies to allow to fire.
“Autoblock” is what we call that CMP functionality that proactively blocks any non-consented technology from loading. Instead of counting on you to manage which vendor code gets to run, it lets you run all your tag code, then it just blocks any non-consented files or cookies from actually loading.
While that post was specific to OneTrust, this is actually relevant for most Consent Management Platforms. I know for sure Cookiebot, Osano, Trustarc and Ensighten can use it, and I’m pretty sure every other CMP does too, because it lets their salespeople say that setting up their tool “takes no effort at all!”
Call it what it is: consent management is complicated
We often get ourselves in trouble in our industry by thinking a simple solution will solve a complicated problem. But simple solutions often require complicated workarounds to actually work in the real world. Going with the “simple” solution may actually create more work and more points of failure.
The alternative to using Autoblock is to use the consent preferences gathered by your CMP to create conditions in your TMS to decide which vendor’s code gets to run. This sounds like more work, and sounds more prone to human error, but after reading this post I hope you’ll understand that Autoblock doesn’t remove human effort (and the possibility for error), it just shifts it.
Part of the complexity comes from the fact that for all CMPs I’ve worked with, Autoblock doesn’t just block cookies, it blocks scripts that might be setting cookies. The theory behind this is sound enough: privacy compliance shouldn’t just be about cookies, it should be about data collection. Lots of tracking can happen without cookies, and cookie names can change even if script locations do not. If a user hasn’t consented to Analytics tracking, we don’t want to just block my Adobe AMCV cookie, we want to block the appMeasurement script from trying to identify me and build beacons about my user experience. So even though everyone talks about CMPs in terms of cookies, and even most consent banners only really mention cookies, we’re usually talking about much more. Just to drive it home, because this is key to understanding how CMPs work: CMPs affect scripts AND cookies.
Also, Autoblock is a binary thing: though you can have a “hybrid” approach that uses both TMS conditions and Autoblock, Autoblock is either on (and potentially affecting everything) or off (leaving it entirely up to your TMS).
Now we’re clear on that, let’s talk about reasons to avoid Autoblock (regardless of which Consent Management Platform you use). Each CMP implements Autoblock slightly differently, and some approaches work better than others, but they all have some common pitfalls.
Complication #1: Many Points of Failure
As I said in my other post, most problems I’ve seen with CMPs have been because of Autoblock functionality. In fact, I have only seen one deployment where it didn’t cause any major problems. Even though consent management is NOT my main role, I somehow keep hearing about Autoblock issues:
- In a client’s Osano POC, we saw consented analytics beacons firing in duplicate or triplicate with no explanation, inflating our Analytics data.
- One org I know of lost 2 months of consented Adobe Analytics data because of a misconfiguration in Ensighten. They didn’t lose ALL data, or they would have spotted the problem sooner- they just thought they had abysmally low opt-in rates, not that 30% of their data was blocked even when users opted in.
- Another org using Cookiebot has a consumer lawsuit on their hands because an old Adobe visitorApi.js file somehow snuck through their Autoblock.
- Just now, trying to test out just how OneTrust would handle AudioEye, nothing I did could get my AudioEye Script to fire if Autoblock was on. (The problem may very well have been user error- I didn’t spend too much time troubleshooting.)
- A week or two back, I was brought into a call with a non-client to discuss a timing issue that was causing cookies to be created even with Autoblock on. The vendor had suggested a manual workaround that involved writing a lot of custom code to manually manipulate cookies.
- The next day, someone else reached out in response to my OneTrust blog post to let me know they had just discovered that because of an issue with hashing, their Autoblock file had exploded in size, causing a sudden traffic deflation issue and impacting their page performance for months. It took a lot of resources to track down the issue, and even then they might not have spotted it if they hadn’t been running regular Observepoint scans.
Time and time again, I see troubleshooting and maintaining Autoblock taking more resources than a TMS-condition-based approach would. Again, I’ll admit a number of these problems could have been from user error. But users do err.
Complication #2: Cookie/script inventory management
Regardless of the CMP, Autoblock functionality requires some sort of inventory of all the cookies and scripts your marTech vendors may be using, so that it can know what to block and what to allow. This is often where most of the “work” of maintaining a CMP comes from. There is usually some list of all possible cookies on your site that someone is going to have to sort through and maintain. Such lists can take a lot of effort and knowledge to maintain. I’ve seen these inventory lists get hundreds of items long and require weekly upkeep, forcing orgs to shift their efforts from making sure they’re using their data in compliant ways, to doing detective work on where obscure cookies like “ltkpopup-session-depth” come from and whether or not they are necessary for your site to function.
Some CMPs allow you to filter this list down to the user, so by clicking through somewhere on your banner, the user can see documentation on all the types of cookies possibly set on your site:
I am not a lawyer, but a bit of research seems to suggest this is not legally required by GDPR or any of the other major regulations (though I’ll admit there may be some reasons lawyers want you to). In fact, from my non-lawyerly view, such lists may be a liability because keeping it 100% accurate would be very difficult for most sites. So I don’t actually see this in-depth public-facing cookie documentation as a worthy benefit.
Most CMPs (including OneTrust) will scan your site and let you know what cookies and scripts it found. Some may fill in some knowledge- for example, OneTrust’s Cookiepedia knows that “_gcl_aw” is likely tied to Adwords and belongs in the Marketing category- but others may rely entirely on you to categorize each cookie appropriately. Some CMPs may only look at cookies and scripts set by your site; others (like one TMS/CMP that rhymes with “enlighten”) may make you categorize all cookies and scripts that a user’s browser extensions may be bringing with them- things that have nothing to do with your site (or what you’re liable for).
One reason keeping such an inventory is so difficult is the often-unclear relationship between scripts/cookies and what purpose they serve. The marTech vendors don’t make it easy- because of acquisitions, concern about optics, or any number of other reasons, most vendors use multiple domains and set multiple cookies which often don’t have a clear association with their vendor. As part of my Tagging Overload presentation last summer, I made an inventory of 200+ common domain/vendor associations but even that is far from comprehensive (and probably far out of date by now). And if cookies are set on your own domain, it can be even harder to know if they require consent, or if your own developers use them to make your site function properly. Miscategorization could mean a lawsuit, or it could mean broken website functionality.
Let’s take two examples:
Many sites use a tool called AudioEye, which makes a site more accessible (for instance, by making it easier for Screen Readers to describe content to blind users) to stay compliant with regulations from the American Disabilities Act (ADA). I’m not a lawyer, but a strong case could be made for AudioEye being considered Strictly Necessary and therefore not require opt-in.
To add AudioEye to my site, I essentially just add a couple lines of code that reference a single .js file (https://ws.audioeye.com/ae.js). That file then brings in a bunch of other files:
Between those scripts, a few cookies get set. OneTrust picked up these third-party cookies in its scans:
Let’s look at Facebook for a Marketing Pixel example next: the pixel script they give me loads one JS file, fbevents.js. But that file actually loads another file from “connect.facebook.net/signals/config/”. On the site I’m currently looking at, between those two files, Facebook sets four third-party “.facebook.com” cookies (“usida”, “fr”, “wd”, and “datr”) and one first-party cookie (“_fbp”).
If I’m relying on my TMS conditions to manage tags based on consent (instead of Autoblock), I can nip that all in the bud by not letting the code that loads that fbevents.js file to ever run to begin with. I don’t need to know that Facebook uses multiple JS files and sets a _fbp cookie on my domain- I just don’t run the script that might set any cookies to begin with.
By contrast, with most Autoblock set ups, the CMP might let me know it found two FB scripts, 4 third-party cookies and 1 first-party cookie on my site. It might suggest categorizations for known cookies for me (OneTrust is pretty good about that; some other CMPs are not), or it may count on me to know which categories they belong to, and which cookies are “strictly necessary” or not. I’d need to keep this list updated- whether or not I’m changing the tags on my site, Facebook might start setting cookies under a different name.
From what I can tell (because it’s not transparent in the interface), OneTrust then finds the scripts setting those cookies and blocks those scripts. I can’t really categorize the scripts themselves in the OneTrust interface. While other CMPs may focus on the scripts and not the cookies, OneTrust’s cookie-centric approach leaves me with very little control in the interface of which scripts I want to have fire.
(To be fair, if Autoblock blocked the fbevents.js file, it would stop all the rest from happening… but the cookie inventories seldom understand that nuance, so you still have 5+ cookies and 2+ scripts to categorize.)
But even once this list is in place and correct, you still may need to do more work to get it to work with your site.
(This goes to show: never believe a vendor that says you can implement their solution without developer work. It’s too good to be true that you could become compliant, not break your site, and not have to talk to a developer.)
Govern Tags, Not Cookies
You can be privacy-compliant without a complete list of third-party cookies. Don’t get me wrong, such a list could be handy, especially if you can keep it accurate and up-to-date. And by all means, you should have some sort of inventory of the tags on your site.
If you know what tags you are firing on your site, you can stop tracking at the source, by stopping those tags. Would you rather take the time to have a condition on your Salesforce tag in your TMS that stops it from ever firing, or take the time to find out that cookies on “cdn.krxd.net” come from Salesforce? There’s no magic bullet solution, either way.
Complication #3: Ownership
Most companies are struggling to find the right owner for maintaining a CMP. Lawyers know the regulations but may have no clue what an AMCV cookie does; marketers may know that they are using TradeDesk for advertising, but have no idea that it uses the domain adsrvr.org; developers may know that the third-party scripts from fonts.googleapis.com affect the visual appearance of the site and have nothing to do with marketing, but have no clue about Facebook cookeis.
I won’t pretend that moving away from Autoblock will clear up all the ownership issues. BUT, when the person deploying the tag (in the TMS) also has primary control of not firing the tag (via conditions in the TMS), it does simplify things.
Complication #4: No Nuance in Categories
For OneTrust at least, Autoblock is all-or-nothing; from what I understand, there are no categories beyond “strictly necessary” and “not strictly necessary”. Someone can’t opt for Analytics tracking but no Marketing tracking.
Complication #5: Timing
If you don’t have OneTrust’s library loading early enough, it may not be there in time to block early-loading scripts and cookies, leaving you with incomplete coverage. Whereas TMS conditions can have some defaults built in that don’t rely on the OneTrust script having been fully loaded (I write about one way to do that in my other post).
Complication #6: It can needlessly lose Adobe Data by not taking advantage of the Adobe Opt-In Service.
For Adobe Analytics tracking in a opt-in-only scenario, Autoblock limits the advantages of using the ECID Opt-In Service. The ECID Opt-In service doesn’t just kill any tracking until you have consent- it kind of holds “preconsented” tracking to the side, so once the user DOES consent, you don’t lose that data that would have been sent when the page loaded. If you’re relying only on Autoblock, you can never get that pre-consented data back. You’d need to re-run any logic that would have fired on your page view.
Complication #7: Page Performance
Autoblock has the potential to have a major impact on page performance, though this varies widely by CMP vendor. Depending on how they work, they may be adding a “gate keeping process” to every asset that loads on your site.
I haven’t tested OneTrust, but I did test another CMP’s autoblock feature and found it slowed the page’s load time up to 40%! (To be fair, I do think it was an inferior tool and hopefully other CMPs aren’t that bad.)
This is a very hard thing to test- did any changes in performance come about because of tags/scripts not firing, or because of the inherent weight of the CMP library, or because of Autoblock? I’d love to hear if any one else has found a good way to test or observed any changes in performance based on Autoblock functionality.
On the other hand, one case FOR Autoblock:
There is at least one situation in which you may need to rely on Autoblock: if you have any scripts or cookies you need to block that are NOT managed by your TMS. In order to use a condition-based approach, you have to be able to add some conditional logic to every script that needs consent. Autoblock doesn’t care if a script comes from your TMS or not- it applies to everything. If you are not confident that your TMS has full control over all tags that need consent, Autoblock may be for you.
I am not saying no one should use Autoblock. It has its uses. Just make the decision with a full understanding of the implications, and an awareness of what other options may look like.
I’m curious to hear other’s thoughts and experiences.