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Cookies crumble: Google renounces ad tracking

And so the cookie crumbles.

Google had already said, last January, it is phasing out third-party cookies to track Internet users as they scamper over the web.

This will happen in the Chrome browser by early next year.

Now, it has gone further and says it won't use alternative tools for tracking individual web users, either.

Google will, instead, only use "privacy-preserving technologies" which anonymize or aggregate users' data.

Ad tech companies have been trying to build alternatives to cookies to maintain personalization in advertising, while maintaining users' privacy.

One, called Unified ID 2.0, uses hashed, encrypted email addresses from consumers who opt in. Companies like Criteo and LiveRamp have taken part, with development led by The Trade Desk.

Another similar tool is LiveRamps ATS.

But not for Google, these cookies-lite.

"We will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products," writes David Temkin, Google's director of product management, ad privacy and trust, on Google's blog.

Google is bowing out of tracking individual users, not only due to pressure from governments, but also because consumers unsurprisingly think it is creepy.

In a recent study, 72% of people said they felt almost all of what they did online was being tracked by advertisers and tech firms.

Even more, 81%, said the risks they faced from data collection were greater than the benefits, said the Pew Research center.

Google is a cookie cutter

Third-party cookies have fueled much of the digital advertising ecosystem.

They are responsible for much of the regulators' ire, too.

France's data protection authority imposed an historic €100 million ($120 million) fine on Google and Google Ireland for depositing advertising cookies on users' computers when users visited Google's French website.

Amazon Europe Core also received a €35 million ($42 million) fine for similar use of cookies by Amazon.fr.


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Amazon's website had a cookie banner, which read "By using that website, you accept the use of cookies to offer and improve our services," with a link to learn more.

But the regulator said this only gave a general, approximate description of the cookies' purpose.

Google, though, was worse: Even if you used the "Edit Ads Settings" button to deactivate ad personalization, advertising cookies lingered on your computer.

Hence the fine, which relied on the EU ePrivacy directive as translated into French law.

A batch of questions

But big questions remain about how much Google will restrict third parties' use of Chrome, and if it will permit other websites using tools like Unified ID and LiveRamp themselves.

If not, it raises the walls around Google's walled garden even higher, and advertisers using it will need to rely on Google's own protocols.

In August 2019, Google revealed its Privacy Sandbox, which tried to personalize web ads while still preserving user privacy.

From this has grown a new Google approach that targets ads to cohorts, instead of individual users.

Chrome, using an approach it calls Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), will still place you in various audiences based on your browsing habits.

And while Chrome won't be collecting cookies as you browse third-party sites, Google will still collect your first-party data when you're using its own products, like YouTube and web searches.

It also doesn't stop Google tracking users in mobile apps, although Apple's iOS14 update will stop cross-app tracking for iPhone users.

Hot in the kitchen

This could mean all app developers, not just Google itself, will now need to move away from all approaches to identify individuals.

The end result of this? It could be to make Google's privacy sandbox crucial now for the online ad industry.

If so, that would be a very nice trick for Google to play indeed.

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— Padraig Belton, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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