Google Chrome is permanently abandon third-party cookies. If all goes according to plan, future updates to the world’s most popular web browser will rewrite the rules for online advertising and make it much harder to track the web activity of billions of people. But it is not that simple. What appears to be a big win for privacy, in the end, can only strengthen Google’s grip on the advertising industry and the web as a whole.
Critics and regulators say the move risks bankrupting small ad companies and could hurt websites that depend on ads for money. For most people, the change will be invisible, but behind the scenes, Google plans to give Chrome control of part of the advertising process. It does this by using browser-based machine learning to record your browsing history and group people into groups with others with similar interests.
“They’re going to get rid of the infrastructure that allows for one-on-one tracking and profiling on the web,” says Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation civil liberties group. “They’re going to replace it with something that still does targeted advertising – just doing it a different way.”
Google’s plan to replace third-party cookies comes from its Privacy Sandbox, a set of proposals to improve online advertising without erasing the ad sector. Besides removing third-party cookies, the Privacy Sandbox also addresses issues like ad fraud, reducing the number of captchas people see, and introducing new ways for businesses to measure ad performance. Many Google critics say parts of the proposals are an improvement on the existing setup and are good for the web.
Change is necessary. The online advertising industry is, to put it mildly, unwieldy. It includes billions of data points spanning all of our lives that are automatically exchanged every second of every day. Such a significant change to this system will impact a multitude of businesses, from brands advertising products and services online to ad technology networks and news agencies that take these ads to every corner of the web.
The Privacy Sandbox offers are complex and technical. Google is already testing some of them, while others remain firmly in the development stage. Privacy Sandbox is documented online, and Google changed its plans based on comments and counter-proposals from rivals. But, ultimately, when it comes to Chrome, everything is controlled by Google.
The removal of third-party cookies from Chrome, first announced in January 2020, has been a long time coming. “The third-party cookies were horrible,” Cyphers says. “They’ve been the most invasive technology in the world for a while.” When Google removes them in 2022, it won’t be the first, but its huge market share means it will have the biggest impact. Apple’s Safari, the second largest browser behind Chrome, limited tracking of cookies in 2017. Mozilla’s Firefox blocked third-party cookies in 2019; the problem is so vast that the browser is currently blocking 10 billion trackers per day.
If you are using Chrome at the moment, the websites you visit, with a few exceptions, will add a third-party cookie to your device. These cookies, small snippets of code, can track your browsing history and display advertisements based on it. Third-party cookies send all the data they collect to a different domain than the one you are currently on. First-party cookies, by comparison, pass data to the owners of the domain you are visiting at that time.
Third-party cookies are the number one reason the shoes you looked at two weeks ago are still harassing you on the web. All data collected by third-party cookies is used to create user profiles, which may include your interests, the things you buy and your online behavior, and this may be referred to cloudy data brokers. “The intention was really to launch a certain set of proposals on how older technologies such as third-party cookies, as well as others, can be replaced with API alternatives that preserve privacy,” says Chetna Bindra , product manager for Google’s advertising activity.