Getty Images / Google / WIRED
Google Chrome is ditching third-party cookies for good. If all goes according to plan then future updates to the world’s most popular web browser will rewrite the rules of online advertising and make it far harder to track the web activity of billions of people. But it’s not that simple. What seems like a big win for privacy may, ultimately, only serve to tighten Google’s grip on the advertising industry and web as a whole.
Critics and regulators argue the move risks putting smaller advertising firms out of business and could harm websites that rely on adverts to make money. For most people, the change will be invisible but, behind the scenes, Google is planning to put Chrome in control of some of the advertising process. To do this it plans to use browser-based machine learning to log your browsing history and lump people into groups alongside others with similar interests.
“They’re going to get rid of the infrastructure that allows individualised tracking and profiling on the web,” says Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “They’re going to replace it with something that still allows 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 for improving online adverts without obliterating the ad industry. Aside from getting rid of third-party cookies the Privacy Sandbox also deals with issues such as advertising fraud, reducing the number of CAPTCHAs people see and introducing new ways for companies to measure the performance of their ads. Many Google critics say parts of the proposals are an improvement on the existing setup and good for the web.
Change is necessary. The online advertising industry is, to put it mildly, unwieldy. It comprises billions of data points about all of our lives that are automatically traded every second of every day. Such a substantial change to this system will impact a raft of businesses, from brands advertising products and services online to the ad tech networks and news organisations that propel those ads to every corner of the web.
The Privacy Sandbox proposals are complicated and technical. Google is already testing some while others remain firmly at the development stage.