Google Delays Cookiepocalypse, but Cookieless Future is Coming

Stephen DeAngelis

July 6, 2021

Back in 2020, Google announced it was going to eliminate third-party cookies from its Chrome search engine by the end of this year. The decision made a lot of people unhappy. Google noticed. Journalists Patience Haggin (@patiencehaggin), Sam Schechner (@samschech), and Suzanne Vranica (@VranicaWSJ), report, “Google delayed its plan to scrap a technology that tracks web-browsing habits amid regulatory scrutiny and concerns from privacy advocates and the advertising industry over the search giant’s approach to replacing the tool. … Google said the delay would give it more time to get publishers, advertisers and regulators comfortable with the new technologies it is developing to enable targeted ads after cookies are phased out.”[1] They add, “Google’s decision reflects the challenges tech giants face as they try to address demands for stronger user-privacy protections without rattling the $455 billion online-ad ecosystem or inviting complaints that they are giving themselves special advantages.” According to the journalists, the delay might also have been prompted by European Union concern. They report, “The European Union said it is investigating Google’s plan to remove cookies as part of a wide-ranging inquiry into allegations that Google has abused its prominent role in advertising technology.” Whatever the reason, the targeted advertising sector breathed a short sigh of relief with Google’s latest announcement.

 

What the Delay Means

 

When it looked like the Google decision to eliminate cookies was imminent, Michael Fuchs, Senior Vice President at Merkury Solutions, wrote, “The death of the cookie may not rank in your top five stressors going into 2021, but if you don’t already have a strategy in place, it might be.”[2] His reaction to the initial Google deadline was, “So what? Apple did this with the Safari browser in 2017 with Internet Tracking Prevention (ITP), and the world didn’t end then.” He went on to explain, “At that time Apple’s Safari browser represented about 15% of all browser traffic, and marketers just shrugged it off. Today, Google’s Chrome represents about 60% of all browser traffic, and the smaller browsers are rapidly following Apple and Google’s lead. If you do the math, that’s the rest of them.” The point is this: Even with Google’s delay, the end of cookies looks inevitable. Vinay Goel, the Privacy Engineering Director at Chrome, explained why Google was delaying its initiative.[3] He wrote:

 

The Privacy Sandbox initiative aims to create web technologies that both protect people’s privacy online and give companies and developers the tools to build thriving digital businesses to keep the web open and accessible to everyone, now, and for the future. To make this happen, we believe the web community needs to come together to develop a set of open standards to fundamentally enhance privacy on the web, giving people more transparency and greater control over how their data is used. In order to do this, we need to move at a responsible pace. This will allow sufficient time for public discussion on the right solutions, continued engagement with regulators, and for publishers and the advertising industry to migrate their services. This is important to avoid jeopardizing the business models of many web publishers which support freely available content. And by providing privacy-preserving technology, we as an industry can help ensure that cookies are not replaced with alternative forms of individual tracking, and discourage the rise of covert approaches like fingerprinting.”

 

Tech journalist Dev Kundaliya explains, “The phase-out of cookies will take place in two phases beginning in late 2022 and mid-2023. … In Stage 1, expected to last for about nine months, advertising firms and publishers will have time to shift their services. During Stage 2, Google plans to phase out Chrome’s support for third-party cookies over a three-month period. The firm expects to complete the second phase by late 2023.”[4] Kundaliya adds, “Advertisers use third-party cookies to collect user information from browsers, and use the data to make advertising campaigns more effective. Critics have long raised concerns that cookies can be used to track users on the Internet. Some browsers, like Firefox and Safari, have already introduced some measures to block third-party cookies. Because Chrome is the world’s most popular desktop browser, phasing out cookies is expected to substantially impact the ad industry.”

 

According to Kundaliya, the current scheme Google intends to implement gives it control over what data is provided to clients. He explains, “Google proposes storing and processing all user data in the web browser, and using machine learning algorithms to assess users’ interests to target them with relevant ads. Google says the data will be presented to advertisers in the form of a cryptographic token that will obfuscate identifying information. This will enable advertisers to confidently target their ads, without directly identifying individuals.”

 

Reactions to Google’s Plans

 

In the months leading up to Google’s announcement about delaying its plans, journalist Kendra Clark (@KendraEClark) reports, “Adland [had] fallen into chaos, not only seeking to understand the company’s new proposals (alongside similarly privacy-centric changes introduced by Apple), but also attempting in many cases to develop its own solutions that seek to balance consumers’ need for privacy with advertisers’ demand for tracking abilities. The pressure facing marketers, technologists and publishers leading up to the repeal of the third-party cookie [had] grown to a fever pitch.”[5] She adds, “The extra cushion will offer advertisers, engineers, publishers and regulators more bandwidth to develop, test and deploy new solutions to fill the gap left by the death of the cookie. Immediate reactions in the marketing world are — considering the already-controversial debate over balancing consumer data privacy with advertising effectiveness — predictably mixed.”

 

Haggin and her colleagues report, “Google’s delay was met with relief by advertisers and publishers, who will have more time to test and adapt to the technology that replaces cookies.” Google’s scheme, described above by Kundaliya, is called federated learning of cohorts, or Floc. According Haggin and her colleagues, “Early technical testing of Floc, which began in April, has been slow. Initially, Google indicated it would allow advertisers to purchase ads for Floc in the second quarter as part of Google’s tests. Google later shifted that time frame to the third quarter, ad executives said. Ad-industry players have also expressed skepticism about Google’s claims that targeting ads with Floc is at least 95% as effective as cookie-based targeting.” They add, “Two rival web browsers that promote privacy, Mozilla’s Firefox and Brave, have said they aren’t supporting Floc. Some prominent websites have debated whether to opt out of using the system. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, says Floc could be misused to help with device fingerprinting, a technique to identify specific web browsers without relying on cookies.”

 

Advertising journalist Ronan Shields (@ronan_shields) writes, “After 18-months of handwringing, claims and counterclaims, plus overall confusion, Google has granted what many in ad tech have prayed for: a reprieve from phasing out third-party cookies.”[6] Like Haggin and her colleagues, Shields believes Google’s revised time schedule is, at least partially, due to governmental concerns. He explains, “Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic have dialed up the pressure on Google’s ads business with sources believing such scrutiny has prompted Google to tap the brakes.”

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

Google’s announcement, although it just delays the inevitable, was nonetheless a welcome reprieve for many. Getting the balance right between personal privacy and effective targeted advertising won’t be easy. If consensus about how to do it can be reached, it will relieve numerous headaches the advertising world is expected to suffer. Goel concluded, “By ensuring that the ecosystem can support their businesses without tracking individuals across the web, we can all ensure that free access to content continues. And because of the importance of this mission, we must take time to evaluate the new technologies, gather feedback and iterate to ensure they meet our goals for both privacy and performance, and give all developers time to follow the best path for privacy.” Google is likely to face continued opposition to its plans. Kamyl Bazbaz, vice president of communications at Google rival DuckDuckGo, asserts, “Marketers should understand that Google’s ‘pro-privacy’ commitment to reduce their reliance on cookies was a means to strengthen their already dominant position in the ad market.” He concludes, “The death of the cookie then and even more so now, is greatly exaggerated.”[7] Maybe so; however, I wouldn’t throw-away eulogies being prepared for the death of the cookie just yet.

 

Footnotes
[1] Patience Haggin, Sam Schechner and Suzanne Vranica, “Google Delays Cookie Removal to Late 2023,” The Wall Street Journal, 24 June 2021.
[2] Michael Fuchs, “First-Party Identity Is a Strategic Imperative in the Cookieless World,” AdWeek, 19 January 2021.
[3] Vinay Goel, “An updated timeline for Privacy Sandbox milestones,” Google The Keyword, 24 June 2021.
[4] Dev Kundaliya, “Google delays plan to kill third-party cookies on Chrome for two years,” Computing, 25 June 2021.
[5] Kendra Clark, “‘Opportunity for industry to unite and align’: marketers react to Google’s delayed cookie cull,” The Drum, 24 June 2021.
[6] Ronan Shields, “Key Questions Need to be Answered After Google Delays the Cookiepocalypse,” Adweek, 28 June 2021.
[7] Clark, op. cit.