Google getting rid of third-party cookies – who’s the real winner? – South China Morning Post

Following efforts by Apple and Firefox developer Mozilla to block third-party cookies, Google also wants to remove them from its Chrome web browser this year.
Along with Google and Apple, Mozilla has made efforts to block third-party cookies on its internet browser, Firefox. Photo: Shutterstock

Google took its first step at the beginning of the year. Since January 4, around 1 per cent of random Chrome browser users have had their access to third-party cookies restricted by default as part of a trial, the company says.

In the second half of the year, these cookies are to be completely abolished, says Google, in a landmark move for a tech company that is, among other things, one of the world’s largest advertising companies.

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However, the cookie banners that pop up when a page is opened will remain in place for the time being.

First of all, what are cookies again? These are small files that a browser stores on our online devices to help remember certain things.

Because these files often contain unique identifiers, websites can use them to recognise their visitors. Browsers need these to remember a person’s login or the contents of a shopping cart.

In the long run, consumers would be at a disadvantage. What it doesn’t mean: less tracking by Google, less data at Google

Bernd Nauen, an advertising industry representative, on Google’s banning of third-party cookies

Above all, however, cookies make personalised advertising possible. Third-party cookies – which are not set by the visited website itself, but by embedded content from other sites – are particularly controversial.

They allow advertising service providers to track users across multiple pages and create profiles for advertising purposes.

Third-party cookies allow users to be “tracked at a very granular level across different websites by third-party providers”, says Lidia Schneck, partner manager at Google.

Everything from where you click to what site you came from is stored in your browsers, and used for personalised online advertising. Photo: Shutterstock

This should be limited in future so that advertising providers only receive very limited information about the interests of users “in order to prevent a user from being identified or recognised”.

Various applications have been developed with the industry for this purpose. From the end of the year, third-party providers will no longer be able to track the individual surfing behaviour of Chrome users across different websites, Google says.

Instead, the websites that a user visits will be labelled with overarching advertising topics like “sport”, “travel” or “pets”.

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The browser records a user’s most frequent topics, saves them locally on the end device and, if prompted, shares a maximum of three advertising topics with the advertising providers for the past three weeks.

The aim is to display ads that are relevant to the user without the advertisers knowing which specific websites have been visited. In the Chrome settings, users can see which advertising themes have been assigned to them and make changes if necessary.

However, the advertising industry has criticised the planned abolition of third-party cookies, saying it serves to benefit tech giants, not individual users.

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According to Bernd Nauen, managing director of the Central Association of the German Advertising Industry (ZAW), this will not strengthen data protection, but rather Google’s dominant position in the advertising market.

“In the long run, consumers would be at a disadvantage. What it doesn’t mean: less tracking by Google, less data at Google,” Nauen says.

This is because Google’s wealth of data is primarily based on first-party data, which Google collects for itself through user logins, its own first-party cookies or search queries.

Critics say the banning of third-party cookies serves to benefit tech giants such as Google, not individual users. Photo: Shutterstock

Outside of Google services and a few other “mega platforms”, the abolition of cookies would mean that users could only be shown adverts based on their presumed interests to a very limited extent, Nauen says.

“Going back to spam, pop-ups and excessive banner adverts on topics that put me off rather than interest me is certainly not the solution.”

According to ZAW, the advertising industry’s room for manoeuvre should not be restricted by individual market-dominant platforms.

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Such controls must lie with governments, the advertising industry says, calling for competition authorities to scrutinise this development.

Digital privacy advocates see things differently, and are generally critical of all forms of tracking and profiling for advertising purposes, says Germany-based consumer protection consultant Florian Glatzner.

The problem is not limited to one technology, such as third-party cookies, he argues, and in some cases, advertising is specifically tailored to the weaknesses of consumers. “This jeopardises the protection of personal data and privacy, enables manipulation and promotes discrimination.”

Consumers are also often unable to predict the scope and consequences of their consent. “The online advertising market and the technologies behind it are too complex, too opaque and too difficult to control,” Glatzner says.

Rather than obscuring user tracking behind a tech company’s solution, Glatzner says, profiling for advertising purposes should be banned altogether.