Without cookies, a common online tracking tool, advertisers face a crisis and will start looking for other ways to track your behavior and habits on the internet, experts say.
Google recently started getting rid of third-party cookies, the tool that websites and advertisers use to track user behavior, on its Chrome browser, effectively kicking off what could be one of the most significant changes in online advertising.
Originally created in the early days of the internet to help websites remember who you are during login, cookies and the ways they facilitate online tracking have become a massive privacy concern. Google eliminated third-party cookies for 1% of Chrome users, 30 million people, last week and aims to do so for all 3.2 billion of its users, according to Statista, by the end of 2024.
Eliminating third-party cookies on Chrome, the largest web browser in the world, is Google’s first step toward a “privacy-first web” –– one that also involves its own replacement tracking tools as part of its new Privacy Sandbox.
Google’s plan could improve privacy on the internet for billions of people, but it could also make life online more annoying in the process, says Christo Wilson, an associate professor in Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern University who specializes in online privacy and tracking.
It stems from what advertisers will have to do in order to pivot away from cookies as their primary form of tracking. They’ve already had to make do without cookies on browsers like Firefox and Safari, which cracked down on the tracking tool years ago. But “Chrome is the prize.”
“They still want to do individualized tracking, so there’s a bunch of annoying things that are going to start happening more frequently now that third-party cookies will be gone,” Wilson says.
If you use Chrome, one thing you will start seeing is a lot more websites asking for your email address and phone number. It’s data that has always been useful for spam attacks, but now advertisers and the websites that use them will turn to email addresses as a primary tracking identifier, Wilson says.
“Websites that have no business asking you to sign up for a newsletter or sign up for an account, they’re going to do it just because they want your email address so they can now do this broad tracking of your behavior everywhere,” Wilson says. “So, users are headed for a little bit more annoyance unfortunately.”
Some might even start to pivot to more invasive techniques like fingerprinting, Wilson adds, because, even after years of Google talking about and delaying its plan, the world of online advertising isn’t ready.
“They’ve known this change was coming for years, and they have not pivoted, so I think there’s a bunch of advertising companies that are going to be left flat-footed and are going to suffer,” Wilson says.
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In the U.K., the Competition and Markets Authority investigated Google’s plan, prompted by concerns voiced by advertising agencies that it would impact competition in digital advertising. Google eventually made changes to its Privacy Sandbox initiative to address those concerns that were accepted by the CMA. But Wilson questions whether competition in online advertising, given Google’s dominance, is a justifiable argument for advertisers to make.
“Regardless of whether the third-party cookie exists or not, Google already has reams and reams of data for advertising purposes,” Wilson says. “There’s a reason why they make more money on online advertising than anyone else. So, I don’t think this actually changes the competitive landscape all that much.”
Laura Edelson, an assistant professor in Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern, says there are still a lot of unknowns about the impact of Google’s replacement for cookies, the Privacy Sandbox initiative.
Google doesn’t know either, Edelson adds, which is why it’s started eliminating cookies in stages. But she does have lingering concerns about “whether what Google is replacing [cookies] with is substantially better or not,” given the company’s track record.
“[Previously,] Google effectively created one consolidated user profile for everyone, which when you think about it isn’t any less privacy invading,” Edelson says. “It just consolidated power more than it protected users.”
One Privacy Sandbox tool the company has talked about is Topics. By tracking users’ browser history, Chrome will assign topics to them like real estate or food. Whenever a user visits a website, advertisers can then see what topics a user is interested in and send them targeted ads.
“Depending on how that system works, it’s still potentially a locus for tracking,” Wilson says. “If your topics are very unique, that makes you a beautiful and unique snowflake versus everybody else.”
For now, Google has made it possible to turn off Privacy Sandbox settings, like Topics.
If Google’s plan achieves what the company claims it can, that’s a win for internet privacy, Wilson says. But given Google’s current antitrust lawsuit, he warns it’s also worth thinking about whether that privacy comes with added benefits for one of the biggest tech companies in the world.
“There’s certainly an argument to be made that this is Google leveraging their power … to force these standards out and basically delineate how online advertising will be conducted in the future,” Wilson says. “If it turns out that these [tools] are in fact privacy preserving and they still offer some utility to advertisers, then that’s probably good. Someone has to make this decision. On the other hand, is it great that Google is the one who makes those decisions?”