On Tuesday, Google announced what appears, at least at first, to be a fairly monumental change to its Chrome browser: Over the next two years, it plans to "phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome." Third-party cookies are little pieces of code used by advertisers to track what you do online so they can serve you targeted ads on sites you visit based on where you've previously visited.
So, for example, if you browse Pottery Barn's website, and start seeing ads everywhere for the coffee table you were looking at, it's usually because of third-party cookies. In reality, while most of us would say it's kind of creepy, targeted ads are effective. At the same time, they're also a very real invasion of your privacy--which is a problem. In fact, those privacy concerns are why browsers like Brave and Safari have already ended support for this type of tracking.
Back in August, I wrote about Google's new "Privacy Sandbox," which the company said was a way to introduce privacy protections for users online while still allowing digital advertisers to serve up targeted ads. The problem, at the time, was that Google said that it couldn't eliminate support for third-party cookies because it would have a detrimental effect on the web at large.
Now it seems that's changing, and there are huge implications for users as well as advertisers. Google's blog post announcing the change puts it this way:
We are confident that with continued iteration and feedback, privacy-preserving and open-standard mechanisms like the Privacy Sandbox can sustain a healthy, ad-supported web in a way that will render third-party cookies obsolete.
So, let's look at the good news and the bad news. If you're a user, there's mostly good news, because ending third-party cookies is generally good for privacy. The caveat here is that it's not yet entirely clear how Google plans to have it both ways. Meaning, it's not clear how Google thinks it can provide a privacy-protected browsing experience that also provides targeted ads.
There's also the fact that some less ethical advertisers will no doubt resort to other types of more nefarious tracking, like browser and device fingerprinting. Those technologies create a profile of you based on information sent by your browser about your device, the operating system, your location, and other unique identifiers. Safari has introduced protection against that, and it will be interesting if Google takes a similar approach with Chrome.
This leads us to more good news, this time for Google. Google has arguably the most to gain from this change, because its advertising model doesn't depend on the same type of tracking technology. In effect, by eliminating third-party cookies, Google is edging out any of its digital advertising competitors. Since Chrome is the most popular browser in the world, all of your web traffic is already going through Chrome. It doesn't need cookies for that.
If you're a digital advertiser, on the other hand, this could be very bad news. That's especially true if you're a smaller business or startup, since both tend to rely more heavily on digital advertising. Larger brands are able to better absorb changes like this, but if you're bootstrapping a new company and count on PPC advertising to reach your customers, this is going to hurt.
That said, while I'm generally sympathetic to the overall challenge facing entrepreneurs in this regard, I still have to lean in the direction that it's a good thing whenever tech companies start respecting our privacy. In fact, the headline of my column back in August was that "Google Could Make the Internet Respect Your Privacy." At the time, I was pretty sure it wouldn't.
In this case, I'm happy to be proved wrong.