Google Burnt Its Cookies

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We’re all beginning to realize that the internet comes at a higher price than we once thought. Every search, click, and purchase is being discreetly watched. Third-party cookies latch on to users’ every digital move, collecting and reporting back on as private and personally identifiable information. It turns out the “free and open” web isn’t free at all.  

Those “we’re keeping your cookies” warnings are becoming increasingly hard to disregard. Users should not have to accept being e-stalked across the internet in order to receive individualized and applicable advertising. And advertisers have to find a more effective way to get the performance benefits of digital advertising without constantly tracking potential consumers. Thankfully, Google is doing something about it. Whatever your thoughts on the company itself, it’s clear they’re at least listening to their customers.  

And it’s about time. With consumer realization, and government regulation looming large, Google is catching on to the idea that third-party cookies are outdated and unwelcome. Last week, Google announced its groundbreaking plan to eliminate them. Their goal is to achieve a privacy-first web experience while still maintaining supportive digital advertising.  

Google explicitly ensures that once third-party cookies are phased out, they will not build alternate ways to track individuals as they browse the web, nor will they use tracking information in advertisement products.  

Though there’s been an increasing amount of privacy techniques to protect users from third-party cookies, like fingerprinting and PII graphs, Google has no plans to use these. The tech giant doesn’t believe these quick fixes will appropriately address rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions. Instead, their internet products will be powered by privacy-preserving methods such as aggregation, anonymization, on-device process, and other capabilities that prevent individual tracking while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers. This is considerable progress for reinstating privacy for internet users, while still allowing advertisers to effectively target their consumer audiences. 

One of these privacy-preserving methods is Google’s Privacy Sandbox, which was launched in 2019, as a way to collaborate with advertisers and maintain functionality while preserving privacy. Another tool Google plans to use is the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). FLoC proposes a new way for advertisers to reach applicable markets, by assembling large categories of target audiences with similar interests. This approach effectively hides individuals “in the crowd” using on-device processing to keep a person’s web history private on the browser. 

Maintaining relevant advertisements for the appropriate user is beneficial for both advertisers and consumers. Google doesn’t want to prevent this. However, by focusing on macro-data versus micro-data, we can protect personally identifiable information without corrupting the internet.  

As one of the most influential search engines, Google’s choice to stray away from third-party data is significant and sure to set an example within the industry. It’s a compelling and symbolic, consumer-driven step in our ongoing work with industry partners to build a privacy-first future for web advertising. Advertising supported internet is at a crossroads. Google is just the first to choose to prioritize consumer privacy in a way that is supportive of the business models that power the open web. Let’s hope other companies follow suit.

Diana Martinez is a law student at Boston University School of Law. Follow her on Twitter at @dianamartinezjd.

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