Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) Chrome browser said this week that it won't deploy other web-tracking tools after phasing out third-party cookies in 2022. But that won’t transform your online experience, or stop you from seeing ads for whiskey if you’ve just looked up how to mix a Manhattan.
“You’re 100% still being targeted,” Elizabeth Renieris, an affiliate of Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, told Yahoo Finance. Even though Google won't replace cookies with other tools that track you individually, it is looking at alternatives that will place users into larger groups with similar interests, which advertisers can buy ads against.
And while that might not be what hardline privacy advocates want to hear, the truth is advertisements sustain most of the websites you visit every day. Without them, we’d be looking at a very different internet where websites charge you directly for the content they offer.
What this means for your browsing habits
To set the table here, there are two forms of web browser cookies. First-party cookies come from the site that you’re actively visiting, and are generally helpful. Say, for example, you visit Yahoofinance.com. Your computer will then download a cookie from the site that will store your preferences so you don’t have to constantly log in to your account or rearrange the page the way you like.
On the other hand, advertising firms place third-party cookies on websites to track your online activities. These advertisers use the information gleaned from those cookies to follow your activities across the web and feed you ads that line up with your general interests — a practice known as targeted advertising. These cookies can, in theory, be useful too, as they’ll serve ads for products you might actually want to buy.
So why the change? According to Bennett Cyphers, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google is eliminating third-party cookies, in part, to comply with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.
What does this mean for you? If you want an idea of what Chrome will be like when it dumps third-party cookies, go check out Mozilla’s Firefox browser or Apple’s Safari, which have blocked third-party cookies since 2019 and 2020, respectively. It’s not exactly all that different.
But getting rid of third-party cookies does provide certain privacy benefits that are harder to see.
While third-party cookies are ostensibly meant to allow advertisers to get a better sense of your interests, opponents say they can be used by data brokers to determine your exact identity. They do this by combining your browsing habits with unique identifiers like your IP address, email, or name, to figure out who you are, and fire off ever more targeted ads.
Without those cookies, you’ll end up with better overall online privacy.
What’s going to replace those cookies?
Google is experimenting with several alternatives to replace third-party cookies including a new mechanism called Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC. FLoC, according to the company, is “a new way for businesses to reach people with relevant content and ads by clustering large groups of people with similar interests.”
FLoC will essentially place you into a group of other Chrome users who seemingly have the same kind of interests. Advertisers will then be able to target you through a group rather than as an individual. So you’re not getting away from targeted ads with Google’s decision to leave third-party cookies in the dust, but you are gaining some privacy benefits.
There are, however, concerns with FLoCs, chief among them that they could lead to discriminatory advertising practices.
“There are certainly huge concerns around discrimination and how these cohorts are being formed and how much transparency we'll have into that and what that means for how we’re targeted,” Renieris said.
The fear is that if an advertiser wanted to target a specific race, religion, or ethnic group with ads, it would simply have to pick a specific FLoC identifier.
While the easy answer may be to eliminate advertising from the web altogether, Garrett Johnson, assistant professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, says that would mean the end of the web as we know it.
By eliminating a means to effectively monetize their sites through ads, website owners will have to find other revenue streams, which could mean charging users. Even eliminating targeted advertising would be a problem.
“Modern digital advertising is built on the basis of cross site identity using cookies,” Johnson said. “And if you get rid of that...our research shows that websites earn two or three times less revenue. So, this hurts websites, that hurts the open web.”
However Johnson, who is part of the Worldwide Web Consortium’s Improving Web Advertising Business Group, says that Google’s third-party cookie alternatives will likely offer consumers and advertisers some kind of middle ground.
“User[s] would have better privacy guarantees, because they're being targeted as a group, rather than having their individual information shared,” he explained. Consumers would also see more personalized ads rather than those for things like earwax removal tools and teeth whitening services.
Google’s changes aren’t set to kick in for another year. And the final result might not mean much of a change for most users. But behind the scenes, it will likely afford more privacy, without having to pay up for it.
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