Google has announced that due to the need for more time to evaluate alternatives, it is delaying (by nine months) its plans to rid Chrome of third-party tracking cookies.
A cookie is a piece of code (used for tracking) that takes the form of a small text file that is stored on the browser of someone who visits a website. A third-party cookie is created by a third-party, perhaps an advertiser, and is placed on a visitor’s computer when they visit your website and other websites. Its main purpose is to track a web user and gather data about their activities and preferences (e.g. websites they visit frequently, what they purchased online and what they show interest in). This enables the building of a visitor profile which, in turn, leads to them being shown ‘relevant’ targeted adverts.
Ridding Chrome of Third-Party Tracking Cookies
Google announced first in 2020, and then in March 2021, that it would be removing third-party cookies from Chrome by phasing them out over two years before rendering them obsolete. The reasons for their removal included:
- Privacy concerns. For example, privacy campaign groups and others have challenged tech companies and advertisers over the years about privacy and tracking users. In November 2020, Big Brother Watch, Oxford University and UCL were among 38 signatories of an open letter to the UK charity sector asking them to look at how advertising companies are allowed to build profiles of users based on sensitive information gained from trackers in websites and the impact that cookie consent processes had on these trackers.
- Improved and new data privacy laws. The introduction of GDPR, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) and others have meant that tech companies can no longer track everything that users do without permission and share that data with multiple other third parties as they wish.
- Other criticisms. For example, in January 2021, the UK Competition and Markets Authority started investigating whether restricting cookies on Chrome could help Google increase its dominance in the online ad industry.
- Other browsers restricting the use of third-party cookies, e.g. Safari (Apple), Mozilla’s Firefox (Mozilla) and Brave, thereby putting pressure on Google to do the same or risk looking bad.
Put Back Until 2024
Google’s recent announcement confirms that they “now intend to begin phasing out third-party cookies in Chrome in the second half of 2024”, which is nine months later than was indicated in their March 2021 announcement.
Alternatives – Privacy Sandbox Technologies
Google says the reason for the delay is the need for more time to evaluate and test the new Privacy Sandbox technologies because it is “expanding the testing windows for the Privacy Sandbox APIs before we disable third-party cookies in Chrome.”
As part of Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative to collaborate with the ecosystem on developing privacy-preserving alternatives to third-party cookies and other forms of cross-site tracking, it has released trial versions of a number of new Privacy Sandbox APIs in Chrome over the past several months for developers to test.
Google has previously described the Privacy Sandbox as “a new initiative to develop a set of open standards to fundamentally enhance privacy on the web” and “a secure environment for personalisation that also protects user privacy.” The idea is to move all user data into the Google Chrome browser where it can be securely stored and processed so that it stays on the user’s device and is, therefore, making it compliant with privacy laws. The Privacy Sandbox may also include an algorithm to group people according to their common web browsing and thereby create ‘clusters’ of people (who can’t be directly identified) with similar interests. These clusters can then be targeted by adverts without affecting the privacy of the individuals in a cluster.
Expanded Testing of Privacy Sandbox APIs
Google says that although developers can already test the Privacy Sandbox APIs, “beginning in early August, the Privacy Sandbox trials will expand to millions of users globally, and we’ll gradually increase the trial population throughout the rest of the year and into 2023”. Google also says “by Q3 2023, we expect the Privacy Sandbox APIs to be launched and generally available in Chrome. As developers adopt these APIs, we now intend to begin phasing out third-party cookies in Chrome in the second half of 2024”.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
For a couple of years now, Google has been saying that it’s going to phase out third-party cookies and the Privacy Sandbox initiative now appears to be the preferred replacement. This system should help Google to stay on the right side of privacy laws and may go some way towards keeping critics at bay. However, Google’s own Ad Manager data shows that when advertising is made less relevant by removing cookies, funding for publishers falls by 52 per cent on average. It is not surprising, therefore, that those most concerned about the change are likely to be the publishers and third-party ad platforms that are reliant on cookies for their revenue and for those who rely upon lots of data for their online advertising, pop-up ads, or a really focused audience-targeting strategy. The extra nine months for testing should buy Google more time to make sure that it (and the third-party ad platforms and publishers) can still make reasonable profits with the system and have something to work with that allows a realistic level of targeting and which enables Google’s ad system to stay well ahead of competitors.
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