Google will join Safari and Firefox to block third-party cookies in its Chrome web browser. However, unlike those browsers (which have already started blocking them by default), Google intends to adopt a gradual approach. Justin Schuh, Chrome’s engineering director, writes that “Google’s intention is to do this in two years.”
Instead of these cookies, Google hopes to be able to institute a new set of technical solutions for several things for which cookies are currently used. To that end, it has proposed a lot of new technologies (like other browser manufacturers) that may be less invasive and annoying than tracking cookies.
It is assumed that these new technologies make it easier for advertisers to target certain demographic data without having to laser target specific people, ensure that the infrastructure used by many sites for logins does not break and help provide a certain level of Anonymous tracking so advertisers can know if your ads really turned into sales.
If everything happened, it would radically change the way in which ad tracking and privacy work on the web. It could also open completely new tracking vectors that we still have to imagine.
The context for the Google cookie removal proposal is that there is a pitched battle between browser manufacturers to remake the future of web privacy. On the one hand, there are browsers such as Safari and Firefox, browsers with code that increasingly adopt an absolutist stance against cross-site tracking. On the other hand, there are Google and Chrome, whose developers are trying to reduce tracking without increasing website revenue.
The difference between all of them is not only if you implement and how to implement that technology, but when. Google wants to wait a bit, Apple and Firefox believe that the crisis is already too big and they have already begun to block third-party cookies, perhaps before there is a viable replacement for some use cases (and in some cases, it is possible they don’t want there to be one).
The battle is great and the rhetoric is sharpening. People accuse Apple of wanting to stifle the web in favor of an App Store with a walled garden. Others accuse Google of wanting to maintain an ad tracking dystopia. Google is concerned that cutting cookies now encourages bad actors to switch to fingerprint methods that are harder to stop, but everyone notices that it is very convenient Google doesn’t want to stop ad tracking until later.
But because they are people on the web, fights are happening in places you probably aren’t really seeing: email lists, github and panels and W3C workgroups. Compared to other technological fights, it probably seems relatively meek and, like all standard organisms, moves quite slowly. But there is a lot at stake: a large proportion of the ads you see on the web are generated by third-party cookies and part of an infrastructure that tracks and markets your data and even your identity.
Unfortunately, the specific details of the proposals get complicated very quickly and make the explanation of third-party cookies seem elementary in comparison. At a high level, Google wants to create a “privacy litter box,” where websites can collect certain information, but eventually they hit a wall where the browser cuts them. Apple has proposed an API to help retail websites track conversions Google seems to like, but the two companies disagree on how much information should be allowed. There are proposals to group people into large demographic groups and replacement mechanisms to log in with third-party services.
These ideas and more are fading, and hopefully they will be, because not doing so will mean a greater fracture of how different people experience the web. It is unlikely that there will be a 100 percent agreement, but the hope is that we will reach some consensus on what should replace third-party cookies.
These cookies were never intended to do as much work, or contain and share as much information, as they currently do. The list of things that third-party cookies do is very long and finding an agreement on how (or if!) Replacing them will take a long time.