On January 14th 2020, according to a blog post by Justin Schuh, director of Chrome engineering at Google, announced Google’s plans to remove 3rd party cookie data from its Chrome Internet Browser within 2-years.
So, what does this mean for consumers and advertisers?
3rd party tracking cookies are used by ad-tracking or analytics services to follow users across the web to learn about their browsing habits. Those insights are valuable to advertisers, but have generated consumer privacy concerns for a number of years. Schuh said in his post, ‘Users are demanding greater privacy, including transparency, choice and control over how their data is used and it’s clear the web ecosystem needs to evolve to meet these increasing demands’.
Essentially, the move is designed to increase consumer privacy which on the face of it is good news. However, Google is the third cab off the rank to act on beefing up its browsers privacy capabilities. Apple with their Safari browser blocked 3rd party cookies in 2017 and Mozilla.org with their Firefox browser, blocked 3rd party cookies by default last September.
The two year phase out period is designed to give users, publishers and advertisers time to adjust. But, it also gives the Chrome team two-years to finalise and implement their ‘Privacy Sandbox’ - a three pronged approach to:
1) replace the functionality served by cross-site tracking,
2) the removal of third party cookies, and
3) mitigate work arounds i.e. ‘Fingerprinting’ by bad players.
The mitigation of ‘Fingerprinting’ represents a considerable challenge. When a site you visit uses browser fingerprinting, it can learn enough information about your browser to uniquely distinguish you from all the other visitors to that site. Browser fingerprinting can be used to track users just as cookies do, but using much more subtle and hard-to-control techniques.
By using browser fingerprinting to piece together information about your browser and your actions online, trackers can covertly identify users over time, track them across websites, and build an advertising profile of them.
When stitched together, these individual properties tell a unique story about your browser and the details of your browsing interactions. For instance, yours is likely the only browser in your location with cookies enabled that has exactly your set of system fonts, screen resolution, plugins and graphics card for example.
Fingerprinting definitely falls foul of privacy regulations such as GDPR in the EU, CCPA in the US and our own New Zealand Privacy Law updates coming later this year.
But some ad industry insiders and marketers argue that, because Google dominates the world-wide browser market - Chrome accounted for at least 56% of browser usage in December, that in two to three years time, Google will have even tighter control over audience data from the ‘Walled Garden’ of Chrome and the soon to be released ‘Privacy Sandbox’. And we haven’t talked about Google’s ownership of the largest mobile device operating system on the planet and the data gathered from that platform - Android! Anyone for a game of ‘Walled Garden Monopoly’?
(Thanks to Clearcode.cc for the above image)
The fact that Google collects massive amounts of data from users when they browse websites on Chrome or use its search engine or other products that creates what is called 1st party cookie data, shouldn’t go amiss either.
Here’s an example of what and how Google gathers data on users:
(Thanks to Passleapforceexam.com for the above image)
And, let’s not forget that Google is an advertising company first and foremost. In fact, it is the largest ad selling company in the world. In the three financial quarters to September 30th 2019 (Q4 hasn’t been released yet), Google raked in a whopping US$97.2 billion dollars in advertising revenue.
So, will these attempts to tighten the users browser privacy work? That remains to be seen. Like most things digital, if you eliminate one way of doing things - such as tracking through a browser, people will invariably find another way to do it.
As a consumer you have a choice. You can give up some liberties and accept that advertising funds the Internet and use the tools that are provided by the Google’s of the world are for your ‘convenience’ and in return you give them your data for them to monetise. Or, if you are concerned about your privacy you can move to an alternate browser/search platform that doesn’t track you wherever you go on the web.
And for advertisers and marketers, well your options around using DMP’s (Data Management Platforms) might become limited, tipping things in Google’s favour steering you back to the ‘Walled Garden’.
I’m keen to follow the development of Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox and will keep you updated as things progress.
Here are a couple of options for those concerned about their privacy:
Brave - Launched in November 2019, Brave is the creation of ex Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich.
In the first week of its launch it attracted 8 million users and 300,000 content publishers including Wikipedia, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Slate and the LA Times have signed up as well.
Brave has positioned itself as a fast browser that preserves user privacy and puts control back in the users hands about what ads you want to see, you can even earn credits (Basic Attention Tokens) for watching relevant ads and it gives you the option to reward content publishers as well. I like the fact that these guys are trying to do the best for the user, the publisher and the advertiser. Techcrunch has a good article that explains more about it here.
Firefox - First surfacing in 2002 and now with a 5.5% market share of browsers according to w3counter.com, Firefox attributes its growth mainly to those users concerned about privacy and have left the Chrome ecosystem.
Because Firefox is a product of the non-profit Mozilla organisation, it doesn’t need to sell your data like some other browser makers. In addition, the browser had a huge update last year that saw even more privacy and security credentials added.
Among Firefox’s useful privacy and security features, the browser now blocks third party tracking cookies and crypto-mining by default. There are also a bunch of extensions you can use to make your browsing even more privacy friendly and secure.
If you want to try a search engine that doesn’t track you check out;
DuckDuckGo - Founded in 2008, DuckDuck Go claims it doesn’t follow its users around with ads since it won’t store their search history, won’t track their IP address and essentially has no personal data to sell, regardless of whether the user is in private browsing mode.
DuckDuckGo uses its web crawler, DuckDuckBot, and up to 400 other sources to compile its search results, including other search engines like Bing, Yahoo, and Yandex, and crowdsourcing sites like Wikipedia.
While DuckDuckGo is good it is not the powerhouse that Google search is. DuckDuckGo simply doesn’t have the resources and reach of the big long-standing search engine and probably will never have, but you’ve got to give them credit for trying!