Google’s cookie-killing plans

Published on the 21/01/2020 | Written by Heather Wright

Google removes cookies

As the cookie crumbles, what’s the replacement?…

Google’s cookie-killing plans – which will see the behemoth end third party cookie support within two years – have prompted opposition from advertising bodies, claiming the move could spell disaster for advertising needed by startups and emerging companies.

Google says its move will make third-party cookies ‘obsolete’.

Cookies, which are used to track online users in Google’s Chrome browser providing rich data on customers and enabling companies to serve up targeted ads, have been a feature of web browsing for 25 years, but have fallen out of favour as privacy moves centre stage and regulations such as the GDPR and the California Privacy Act come into force.

“It may choke off the economic oxygen from advertising that startups and emerging companies need to survive.”

Apple added tracking restrictions to its Safari browser back in 2017 in a move that prompted plenty of angst from digital advertising and marketing organisations, while Mozilla Firefox also has a version blocking third-party cookies by default. Even Microsoft’s Edge browser, which has just started rolling out and which uses Google’s Chrome engine, has privacy features to prevent tracking.

Chrome, however, has the lion’s share of the global browser market – Statistica puts that share at around 69 percent for the desktop market, in December 2019.

But while Google might be phasing out support for third-party cookies in Chrome, it isn’t abandoning online advertising and ad tracking, with the company saying it’s working on initiatives to let online advertising continue.

Justin Schuh, Google Chrome engineering director, says “Users are demanding greater privacy – including transparency, choice and control over how their data is used – and it’s clear the web ecosystem needs to evolve to meet these increasing demands.

“Some browsers have reacted to these concerns by blocking third-party cookies, but we believe this has unintended consequences that can negatively impact both users and the web ecosystem. By undermining the business model of many ad-supported websites, blunt approaches to cookies encourage the use of opaque techniques such as fingerprinting (an invasive workaround to replace cookies), which can actually reduce user privacy and control. We believe that we as a community can, and must, do better.”

That’s of little comfort to some, with two American advertising bodies – the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) – quick to voice opposition to Google’s plans.

In a joint statement the two organisations say the decision to block third-party cookies ‘could have major competitive impacts for digital businesses, consumer services and technological innovation’.

“It would threaten to substantially disrupt much of the infrastructure of today’s Internet without providing any viable alternative, and it may choke off the economic oxygen from advertising that startups and emerging companies need to survive.”

The ANA and 4A’s say there hasn’t been careful consultation prior to Google’s announcement.

“We intend to work with stakeholders and policymakers to ensure that there are effective and competitive alternatives available prior to Google’s planned change fully taking effect.”

The two groups will also collaborate with Google, they say.

Google’s moves come against a backdrop of increasing demands for greater privacy, and that’s certainly the push Google was making with its announcement – referencing privacy repeatedly throughout the statement. But while privacy might be Google’s stated aim, its moves have left some questioning whether the move will enable the giant to extend its own online advertising dominance.

Google says it will limit insecure cross-site tracking starting in February, treating cookies that don’t include a SameSite label as first-party only and requiring cookies for third-party use to be accessed over HTTPS.

It says it’s also developing techniques to detect and mitigate covert tracking and workarounds, with new anti-fingerprinting measures which it hopes to launch later this year.

Google’s announcement comes as parent company Alphabet’s market valuation hit the one trillion dollar mark – joining the rarefied ranks of Apple (which was first to hit the milestone back in 2018) and Microsoft. Amazon was valued at more than one trillion, but has since slumped back.

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