UK regulator to probe Google Chrome's cookie changes

Britain's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced last week that it will probe Google's proposed plan to replace web browser cookies. 

The UK body has warned that replacing cookies, files that keep track of your activity when you visit websites, will have a 'significant' impact' on online businesses, news websites, and the digital advertising market.

[[post-object type="divider" /]]

What are cookies?

Cookies are small text files that websites install on your device when you pay them a visit in order to track your browsing habits. 

  • Session cookies are used internally on websites to keep track of user activity for the duration of one session. They could be based on something innocuous like the contents of your shopping cart and are deleted after the browser is closed. 
  • Persistent cookies monitor user activity across multiple visits to a site and can keep long-term records of user activity. They will stay on a user's device until they expire. 
  • First-party cookies are cookies installed on your device by a domain you visit to retain your preferences for that website. 
  • Third-party/Tracking cookies are cookies installed on your device from a domain that you haven't visited through a domain you have visited and can target ads to you across sites. 

Check out our what are flash cookies, super cookies, and zombie cookies guide for more information about different types of browser cookies. 

Why does Google want to get rid of them?

Third-party/Tracking cookies are the cookies Google is most concerned about. How these files operate has been a major worry for privacy-conscious internet users for many years, and more and more people are now both aware and unhappy with how their browsing habits are being tracked.

A study published last year by MIT, UCL, and Aarhus University suggested websites are making it as difficult as possible for users to decline cookie permissions. Almost half of the websites they analyzed did not have 'reject all tracking' as an option. 

This, as well as other concerns, led Google to pledge in January of last year to phase out third-party cookies by 2022.

Justin Schuh, Director of Chrome engineering, admitted in a blog post at the time that "users are demanding greater privacy", but suggested removing third-party cookies without a replacement ad system would have "unintended consequences" for users and the web's business ecosystem.

What is the CMA's probe attempting to establish?

The CMA wants to explore whether Google's shift away from cookies will force advertisers into using their online ad-tools instead of a competitor. 

The removal of cookies would be followed by the implementation of Google's Privacy Sandbox proposals, which would confine advertisers to using more anonymized information that wouldn't be directly connected to individuals. 

A group called Marketers for an Open Web have claimed that the revenue of the companies they represent could plummet by more than two-thirds as a result of Google's changes. 

[[post-object type="blockquote" author="James Roswell, Director of Marketers for an Open Web"]]Efforts to mitigate this monopoly power will be in vain if Google manages to consolidate its dominance through the introduction of Privacy Sandbox prior to the regulators' recommended changes to the law being implemented[[/post-object]]

The group also expressed concerns about Google's desire to end the use of user-agent strings, information sent by browsers to websites about the users visiting their sites. This could prove hugely damaging to sites that use this information for search engine optimization and visibility purposes. Google responded to the CMA's decision last week, saying: 

[[post-object type="blockquote" author="Google Spokesperson"]]We welcome the CMA's involvement as we work the develop new proposals to underpin a healthy, ad-supported web without third party cookies[[/post-object]]

Previously the EU was responsible for these sorts of competition-related probes into Big Tech companies, but the CMA has taken on this responsibility since the UK's departure from the bloc. 

Conclusion

The CMA's probe will likely provide insight into how a post-Brexit Britain plans to renegotiate its relationship with the globe's largest tech companies. 

Although the government announced last November that they were creating a Digital Markets Unit within the CMA, it is not fully operational until April of 2021. This unit will be informed by the Digital Markets Taskforce, which was set up in December just in time for the UK's departure from the EU. 

However, the appearance that the government is on the front foot may be an illusion. Last year, the Furman review made several proposals to protect digital markets as well as curtail Big Tech's acquisition power and monopoly on advertising, but most were ignored by the government.

One of the few recommendations given a second look concerned the creation of a 'code of competitive conduct' to govern what companies can and can't do.

But critics have said these attempts at regulation assume the market dominance of the Big Tech companies and are nothing more than "asking the big kids to play nice" as Michelle Meagher put it in the Guardian

It remains too early to make predictions about how the UK's relationship with the world's biggest technology companies will develop, especially as new units and task forces are yet to properly take shape. However, it seems to be becoming customary for encouraging signs to be found entangled in wider issues that are yet to be addressed.