There’s only one body standing in the way of Google’s plan to kill third-party cookies

Third-party tracking cookies’ days are numbered.
Third-party tracking cookies’ days are numbered.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Google is on the verge of killing third-party cookies, the surveillance tools that advertisers use to monitor individual web users’ browsing histories and shopping habits. But British monopoly regulators will soon have the power to pause Google’s efforts to pull the plug and, at least temporarily, extend the life of cookie-based tracking a little bit longer.

The UK’s power to meddle in Google’s global business model stems from a chorus of complaints from Google’s competitors in the ad industry. These rival companies allege that ending cookie tracking will deprive them of their best source of user data and give Google an even bigger advantage in the market for digital advertising. In response, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation in January.

To appease the regulators, Google offered the CMA the power to impose a 120-day “standstill period” before it kills tracking cookies, which would force the company to sit on its hands for four months while regulators reopen their antitrust investigation. If the CMA accepts that offer—as it tentatively said it would today (June 11)—then the standstill period will become legally binding.

Crucially, Google wrote in a blog post today that if the CMA accepts the deal, which includes a commitment not to use third-party cookie replacements to stifle competition, it will “apply them globally,” meaning that if regulators gum up the gears for killing cookies in the UK, it’ll slow Google’s efforts at ending cookie tracking all over the world.

Third-party cookie tracking is doomed…

In the long run, third-party cookies are doomed to oblivion: Consumers and privacy regulators have grown increasingly hostile to the intrusive ad targeting they support. There’s little evidence in peer-reviewed research that tracking cookies actually get people to spend more money on products. And the companies that rely on them the most are, essentially, middlemen in the digital ad market who have earned the resentment of their industry peers by siphoning off a large portion of advertising revenues. As a result, brands and ad agencies have come to view third-party cookies as ineffective, wasteful, and radioactive from a publicity standpoint.

Safari and Firefox—the world’s second and third largest web browsers—already block third-party tracking cookies by default as a privacy measure. Many users on other browsers use ad blockers, which also swat down tracking cookies. The last and most important domino to fall is Google Chrome, which controls two-thirds of the global browser market. Once Google pulls the plug on third-party cookies, they’ll effectively be gone for good.

…But Google’s in no rush to pull the plug

Google has said it intends to end support for third-party tracking cookies by 2022—and it has real incentives to eventually do so. The company needs to appease increasingly combative regulators, who are looking for any reason to investigate the company. It also needs ammunition to compete against Apple, which is marketing itself as the privacy-friendly tech giant to convince consumers to buy Macs and iPhones instead of Chromebooks and Androids.

But Google’s not in a huge rush to get there. The company’s main customers, after all, are not privacy-conscious consumers; the lion’s share of Google’s revenue comes from advertisers. To keep them happy, Google created a two-year sunset window before it pulled support for third-party cookies, to give the ad industry time to come up with alternative methods to track people and target ads. It assured advertisers that it will push back its 2022 deadline if the industry isn’t ready to wean itself off cookies yet. And it has made every effort to push responsibility for the unpopular parts of its plans to kill cookies onto industry groups and regulators.

That’s where the UK Competition and Markets Authority comes in. Given that there’s some trepidation in the ad industry that killing third-party cookies will only concentrate Google’s power in the ad market, the company has sought to allay those fears by engaging directly with antitrust authorities. By giving British regulators broad power to scrutinize—and even halt—its plans to end support for third-party cookies, Google can get antitrust authorities’ seal of approval on the project, and the company can honestly say it gave regulators every opportunity to investigate any anti-competitive impacts.

The move is similar to Google’s decision to work on developing standards for alternative tracking methods with the World Wide Web Consortium, a widely recognized industry group that includes representatives from brands, ad agencies, ad tech companies, web browsers, and web publishers. The process is, by all accounts, largely dictated by Google. But in the end, it will have the industry’s seal of approval on its alternative tools for targeting ads.