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Google says it won’t develop intrusive mechanisms like third-party cookies once it phases them out

Once Google phases out third-party cookies from its ad-tech business, it won’t build alternative mechanism to track individuals’ behaviour across the internet. The company, which had pledged in January 2020 to phase out third-party cookies from Chrome within two years, has now said that it will only use “privacy-preserving technologies”.

Third-party cookies are small pieces of data used to tell websites information about the user. They are used by advertisers to track users across websites to target personalised ads, and also assess how these ads are performing. Google had said in January 2020 that it would phase out support for these cookies on Chrome in the interest of privacy.

“Today, we’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products,” the company said. Google said its web products will use “privacy-preserving APIs” which prevent individual tracking.

The company said that other providers may offer ways to use user identity for ad tracking across the web, but these solutions will not stand up to “rapidly evolving” regulatory restrictions. “People shouldn’t have to accept being tracked across the web in order to get the benefits of relevant advertising. And advertisers don’t need to track individual consumer across the web to get the performance benefits of digital advertising,” it said.

The alternatives: The company indicated that it will depend on aggregation, anonymisation and on-device processing to replace individual identifiers. One possible method, it said, was FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts), wherein people are targeted as part of groups with common interests, instead of individually. This method could deliver results nearly as effectively as cookie-based approaches, it had said in a blog post from January when it had released data about FloC. The Chrome browser will reportedly make FLoC-based cohorts (groups of people) available for testing in its next release this month.

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Google’s privacy-oriented business moves come at a time of great regulatory scrutiny. The company is facing an antitrust lawsuit in the United States, which focuses on its dominance of the ad-tech market, among other things. In fact, Google’s decision to phase out third-party cookies from Chrome comes several months after Apple’s Safari implemented full blocking in April 2020; Firefox started blocking them by default from 2019.

What this might mean for ad-tech market

Other players in the ad-tech market have misgivings with Google’s proposals as well, according to a report by Ad Exchanger. The direct implications of Google’s announcement are not immediately clear, and it isn’t known whether Google will stop using identifiers only on DV360 (an ad-managing product), Google Campaign Manager or also YouTube, the report notes.

Participants in the Web Advertising Business Group (IWABG) of the World Wide Web Consortium have reportedly been sceptical about whether Google’s FLoCs were, in fact, as successful as cookies, as the company has been claiming. Participants have called for Google to share details on how Google conducted the FloC tests, the report notes.

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