Google is delaying its long-promised move to block third-party cookies from its Chrome browser by another year, citing the need to “move at a responsible pace” and “avoid jeopardizing the business models of many web publishers which support freely available content.”
Google’s business model likely factored into the decision, too: It relies on third-party cookies for some of its lucrative ad business and is a major player in the digital advertising ecosystem that will be upended by the change. So Google has never been all that eager to make it.
Third-party cookies are how many ad companies and data brokers track you across the internet. They can see which sites you go to and use that to build a profile of you and your interests — which is then used to target ads to you.
People who care about their online privacy generally don’t like being tracked this way. Some browsers have responded to this by blocking third-party cookies and making their privacy bona fides a selling point. You can check out Recode’s guide to browsers if you want to know more, but Firefox, Brave, and Apple’s Safari already block third-party cookies by default and have for some time now. Chrome, by contrast, has dragged its heels to do the same. Now it’s dragging them even more.
Google announced in January 2020 that it would eliminate third-party cookies from Chrome by 2022. The company promised to use those two years to come up with a more private alternative that users and advertisers (and Google) would be happy with. It’s rolled out some attempts since then, most notably the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).
The problem is, FLoC doesn’t completely stop tracking. Rather, it puts that tracking squarely in Google’s hands: Chrome users’ internet activity will be tracked through the browser itself, and then Google will put users in large groups based on their interests. Advertisers can then target the groups, rather than the individual. That’s supposed to keep users anonymous while still letting advertisers target them, but it also gives Google much more control over the information collected through it, and ad companies much less. Google was pretty pumped about FloC, but it wasn’t exactly popular with privacy experts, ad tech companies, or regulators. The United Kingdom and the European Union are investigating if it violates their antitrust laws.
So Google — which, to be fair, said all along that 2022 was a projected date and not an absolutely certain one — announced that it’s going to need more time to institute its cookie ban.
“We need to move at a responsible pace,” the company said in a blog post. “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.”
That last sentence is key — it’s a reminder that your data is the “free” internet’s currency. Any company that trades in that currency is always going to find a way to collect it.
The Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), an ad industry group, was (not surprisingly) pleased to find out that the cookie ban was being delayed.
“We appreciate Google’s thoughtful approach to ensuring a diverse, competitive, and privacy preserving internet experience for consumers and businesses alike,” the group’s president and CEO, Leigh Freund, said in a statement. “[This is] an opportunity to take the time necessary to build an ecosystem that truly gives consumers the privacy and benefits they deserve.”
So now, Google says it will stop supporting third-party cookies in your Chrome browser by the end of 2023. As for what will replace those cookies, that’s still an open question. FLoC is one of apparently many options Google is considering, saying that there are more than 30 proposals in the works and four of them are being trialed.
Chrome is the most popular browser out there, and it’s also the only one that’s run by a company with a substantial ad platform. Getting rid of cookies and tracking is going to hurt Google. That’s not a factor for its rivals, which is why they’ve been quick to adopt anti-tracking tools and Google is lagging behind until it can find a way to make tracking more palatable.