Google plans to phase out third-party cookies in Chrome within the next two years.
To kick start this plan, from next month Chrome will limit insecure cross-site tracking by treating cookies that don’t include a SameSite label as first-party only. Cookies labelled for third-party use will be required to be accessed over HTTPS. A post in Google’s Chromium Blog back in May 2019 titled “Improving Privacy and Security on the Web” outlines the policies they intend to pursue. These policies are now being actioned.
So it is definitely time to take notice of - and be informed about - Google’s forthcoming plan.
What is it?
Cookies are digital tools that track an individual's internet activity. The small piece of data is stored by web browsers like Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari while users surf the internet. They record information such as what websites have been visited and items that have been added to a digital shopping cart.
Google’s new scheme is known as Privacy Sandbox. Chrome developers are optimistic that the new open source initiative will make the web more private and secure for users.
Justin Schuh, director of Chrome engineering said: “We are confident … mechanisms like the Privacy Sandbox can sustain a healthy, ad-supported web in a way that will render third-party cookies obsolete.”
How will it work?
Rather than blocking third party cookies all at once, Google is taking a strategic approach to deter invasive alternative techniques such as fingerprinting being used to gather user information.
Although its going to be a phased and relatively slow roll-out, the first steps are already underway. From next month (February 2020, for future reference) – as described above – the first meaningful change will take effect.
In its Chromium blog Mr Schuh said: “We plan to start the first origin trials by the end of this year, starting with conversion measurement and following with personalization.”
Conversions will be tracked within the browser, not via a third-party cookie. When an advertiser needs to track a conversion, they’ll call an API* that will send the conversion value from the browser. However, individual user data would not be passed back.
What impact will it have?
Third party cookies, which Privacy Sandbox will look to dissolve, are created by domains other than the one you are visiting directly, hence the name third-party. They are used for cross-site tracking, retargeting and ad-serving.
Companies use them to find out about individuals' activities on the internet.Web publishers use them to determine what advertising to target to a particular person.
The companies who run ads on the Google Display Network will need to use the Privacy Sandbox API in order to keep them running.
Google will keep us all updated with any further developments as they look to increase the privacy of web browsing.
Is this the next step in Google’s plan to monopolise the web and ensure all the world’s digital marketing budget ends up in its offshore coffers? Or is this a move born out of genuine concern for privacy on the internet; an altruistic attempt to protect end-users from unscrupulous advertisers?
While it is tempting to think in terms of absolutes where any topic is concerned, it is impossible to do so when it comes to a beast as complex as the internet.
End users expect free access to websites belonging to newspapers and magazines. They turn away from paying cold, hard cash for printed copies when the online versions are free. Those publications need revenue to keep the digital press turning and the pixel wells full, and that revenue has to come from advertising.
At the same time, no-one likes to think their online activity is tracked by third-party advertisers, even though that is precisely what they consent to every time they click to ‘accept cookies’.
The flow of data that allows for ads to be personalised (and so have a greater chance of success) needs to be controlled and indeed facilitated by someone – and that someone, like it or not, is Google.
That Google will get richer on the back of the new steps its taking is undeniable. At the same time, user tracking is the pump that keeps ad revenue flowing and it is probably better that one enormous organisation – even one that is largely self-regulating – keeps hold of the pump handle. After all, Google is interested in big data and user trends, not the precise buying habits of Mr Jones at Number 23.
That many smaller cookie-reliant advertising platforms may go to the wall - or end up part of Alphabet’s worldwide soup – is sad news for them but on balance is probably a good thing for the public. At least we will know who is controlling our data.
*Application Programming Interface (detailed explanation here)
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