At some point next year, Google Chrome will stop using third-party cookies. It’s a move that could upend the global advertising and publishing industries – and it has major implications for your privacy.
Google isn’t hanging the advertising industry out to dry. Its replacement for third-party cookies comes in the form of a set of APIs dubbed the Privacy Sandbox. But, with less than a year to go, there are still a lot of big questions that need answering. Parts of Google’s plan have drawn the attention of regulators who are investigating whether the changes may ultimately strengthen its position in the online advertising market. Here’s what you need to know.
What’s Google actually changing about third-party cookies?
Since third-party cookies emerged as a way to track people online, back in the 1990s, they’ve grown to be one of the scourges of the internet. If you’re using Chrome at the moment then the websites you visit will add cookies to your device. They come in two forms: first- and third-party cookies. First-party cookies are placed there by the website you are visiting and are generally useful – they remember if you’re logged in or not, for example.
Third-party cookies are added to your device by other parties the website you’re visiting has made agreements with. Third-party cookies, which can be placed in ads, can track you as you move around the web. They build a profile of you by gathering data on your browsing history and linking it to an identifier that’s attached to your name.
This highly-personalised, intrusive, approach is then used to show you targeted adverts – that’s why that pair of jeans you looked at last week are now stalking you around the web, or why a shop can know you’re pregnant before you’ve told your family. But tracking people using third-party cookies has been going out of fashion for years: both Firefox and Safari have introduced blockers to actively stop them from working.
Google is following its rivals. In January 2020 it announced that it would begin phasing out cookies and replace them with something new. “Privacy-preserving and open-standard mechanisms like the Privacy Sandbox can sustain a healthy, ad-supported web in a way that will render third-party cookies obsolete,” said Justin Schuh, director of Chrome engineering at Google, when the announcement was made.
What’s a Privacy Sandbox?
Google announced Privacy Sandbox before it revealed Chrome would be getting rid of cookies. The Privacy Sandbox is essentially a bunch of different technologies the company is building – while consulting with the advertising industry and other developers – to replace third-party cookies. The proposals are more privacy-friendly than third-party cookies but are being built so that the advertising industry isn’t decimated by the changes.
There are proposals about how web browsers can tackle spam, how people login to websites, and ways to change the online advertising industry. There are tools that look to measure how much people click on ads and then buy products and also different ways to show people ads online.
Currently, online advertising works in three different ways: contextual ads, where a system looks a the page you are visiting and shows you ads based on its content (if you are reading about cars you might want to see ads for cars); interest-based ads, what you like is inferred from your browsing and then you see ads related to this (seeing a certain type of ad because you like classical music); and ads that involve remarketing (those jeans that follow you around).
Getting rid of third-party cookies will have a different impact on each of these types of advertising. As a result, Google’s rivals are building alternatives that better understand the content of web pages. Expect a lot more websites, for example, to ask you to login. This change could hand website owners the kind of valuable data that was previously held by Google.
Arguably the biggest area ditching third-party cookies will have an impact on is interest-based advertising. And it’s here that Google is proposing a system called Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC for short.
And what is FLoC?
In March 2021, Chrome started testing FLoC in the real world and quietly put the system to work in millions of web browsers. FLoC is Google’s way of showing you adverts for things that it believes you are interested in. Google claims the system is 95 per cent as effective as third-party cookies. Advertisers question this.