Cookies getting the boot from Google

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Internet privacy has become more and more important over the years, and we have come to realize exactly how much of our personal information is available to just about anyone. You might search for airfares to Scotland out of interest sake using Google, and not even two minutes later you go a completely unrelated sight only to see an ad about the newest airfare prices for a flight to the UK. In the right situation, this can be advantageous to you, but it also feels like big brother is watching and in a way, he is because this is all down to third-party cookies.

In the world of cookies and online activity tracking, these are the cookies created by other domains than the one you are actually on, and they track what you do. More often than not, they are used for advertising purposes, but they can also be used for other services, like live chats. This is why you see an ad about air travel on every website you open for the next week just because you Googled it once.

Google has recently announced that it will be phasing out cookies. Whether this is really a good or a bad thing is still highly debatable.   

Good cookies

Now, remember, not all cookies are baked equally, and getting rid of third-party cookies does not mean we will be without them entirely. At the end of the day, a cookie is just a text file stored on your device that is defined by what is stored in it. Other types of cookies that are still going to be around and that are actually useful are:

  • First-party cookies: These are created and stored by the website you are on and saves important information on that site, like your language preference, allowing for a good user experience.
  • Secure cookies: These are a type of HTTP cookie with secure attributes and can only operate in secure channels. They will often be used on payment pages to make the online payment more secure.
  • Persistent cookies are stored on your device. They work toward remembering who you are so you don’t have to re-enter details every time. These are the cookies that let you close Chrome, shut down your laptop, return to it later and still be logged in.
  • Session cookies expire once your session on the website is done or the browser is closed. It just stores info from the site and not the user. If you load things into a shopping cart and then go to check-out, the items are still there. That was session cookies at work.

Google is not the leader here

What Google is doing, phasing out the use of third-party cookies, is not a novel idea. Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox have made it a default feature to not allow third-party cookies because they know that companies can profile users. In this regard, Google is quite late to the game, but this is not without reason and the reason can be summed up in two words: Google Ads.

With cookies tracking your personal internet usage and searches through Google’s services (Chrome, Maps, etc), Google was able to provide their own advertising clients, those buying and bidding on advertising space, with the assurance that their ads would reach a very targeted audience. You don’t have to use the Google search engine for Google to be able to get cookies from you online activity though. If you type a URL directly into the address bar and go straight to the website, you would have bypassed Google’s services. Once you do use the Google search engine again, for example, it will see that there are new cookies on you device and it will use them. It is exactly this, as well as other privacy leaks and issues from big hitters like Facebook, that has led the EU, for example, to update its 2002 ePrivacy policy to one accepted in February 2021 that specifically includes the safety concerns on cookies. All of these events have brought is to where we are now with Google jumping onto the no-third-party-cookies bandwagon. They will be phased out over a two-year period. Google will, however, replace the cookie system with something else, and this is where the debate comes in.

Rather the devil you know…

If companies started stressing about how they would be able to continue with effective online advertising, they can stop. Cookies might eventually be a thing of the past but an alternative advertising support system will be available where Google no longer tracks people as individuals but as part of a group with similar interests. On the one hand, it assures users more privacy, but on the other, Google also assures that this method will be at least 95% as effective for advertisers as individual tracking was. These two assurances seem to not sit well together.

Google will be using privacy-preserving APIs to ensure that users are no longer tracked as individuals. This does not mean that it will not profile users. A user’s recent browsing history will be used to create a cohort (group) identity which means that an individual will be placed into a group of, potentially, thousands of people to whom the same advert, based on the group’s interests, will then be shown.

Again, Google is not the leader here, and their adoption of user profiling is very similar to the Lookalike Audience advertising services Facebook offers clients. The method of profiling individuals has its own set of problems as the AIs doing the profiling are informed by real-world bias and advertisers have been able to discriminate against users based on race, for example.

The grouping of users and tracking of the group is just one new feature in Google’s proposed Privacy Sandbox. Their new system will also include a trust API that will ensure that the user truly is a person, a privacy budget API that limits the amount of information a single website can attain, and a conversion measurement API allowing advertisers to measure the success of their ads without breaching a user’s privacy. The new profiling system based on one’s browser history still allows for targeted advertising, but only on the Google platform (which includes the Chrome browser that comes standard on all android devices…)

Apart from these concerns and issues of debate, there is the monetary issue that has been raised as well. The predominant question here is why Google is doing it now? Are they just moving away from third-party cookies as a choice before they will be forced to so in any way? More importantly, what will it do to their bottom line? Any ad software and platform that relied upon third-party cookies will potentially suffer because of this change. It won’t happen overnight though, so they can still adapt and adopt new advertising strategies and plans. Google, however, will quite possibly increase its online monopoly of the ad market as people would be forced to adopt its Sandbox. Money that was once spent on third-party platforms will have to go to Google’s bottom line if advertisers wish to continue advertising as they do.

It’s not all bad though

As the phasing out of third-party cookies continues, chances are that users will not see much of a difference in their day-to-day usage of Google, but on the back-end of things, there will be less information about you available to people, theoretically. What’s more, it does seem that this move is a big corporation taking a stand for privacy along with governments, councils, and individuals alike.

Additionally, it will force innovation in the advertising industry. Privacy rules and laws would have become more stringent, whether Google started phasing out cookies or not, and the innovative marketer would not be caught off-guard by it. As alternative marketing tools, platforms, and systems come into play, they will analyze how best they can adopt that and adapt to changing circumstances.

Google has also expressed its willingness to work with advertisers. They want to receive feedback about their proposed APIs and the concerns about data collected, for example. Ultimately Google’s Privacy Sandbox and its proposed APIs should become an open web standard that could be adopted by Safari and Firefox and any other browser.