There’s an old saying in the technology industry that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. And that’s certainly been true when it comes to consumers and their data.
For the past 25 years, cookies have tracked users’ behaviour across the web, and brands have used that information to target them with advertising. It’s a sector that’s grown to be worth more than $600bn, propelled by the promise of scientific accuracy and tracking that the advertising sector had only previously dreamed of. Before cookies were invented in 1992, the success of advertising campaigns running across media such as newspapers, magazines, TV, and billboards could hardly be measured at all.
But in 2024, Google will become the latest technology provider to phase out third-party cookies in its web browser, Chrome. It’s a step Apple and Mozilla have already taken with Safari and Firefox. But because Chrome controls access to more than half the world’s web traffic, it represents a significant sea change for the advertising sector. In short, the industry’s relationship with personal data is about to undergo a monumental upheaval.
Putting privacy first
The tech privacy wars have been hotting up in recent years. Apple launched its privacy-first iPhone campaign in 2019, giving users the right to choose whether or not they were tracked by apps. It’s already affected Facebook’s bottom line to the tune of $10bn. But Apple believes privacy is the right platform to stand on, and has turned it into a business advantage.
What’s happening is the general public has become wise to the fact they’re being tracked. And they don’t like it. First-party cookies are used by the website an individual has chosen to interact with and might track metrics like products purchased in order to make other recommendations. In contrast, third-party cookies are set by an unknown body that tracks browser history across websites, collecting users’ personal information for unknown purposes (but will often determine which display ads you’re shown).
And they have become prolific. Firefox, for example, is said to be blocking 10 billion trackers per day after imposing its own ban. The popularity of search engine DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track users, has surged – from 2020 to 2021, its average daily search volume grew by 73%. And others – more than one in four users according to Statista – are taking their own steps to disable third-party cookies in their browsers, or changing their privacy settings in their phones.
Indeed Google itself has pointed to privacy as the driving force behind this change. David Temkin, Google’s director of product management for ads privacy and trust has said when third-party cookies are phased out, alternative indicators will not track individuals across the web. “We don’t believe these solutions will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions and therefore aren’t a sustainable long term investment.”
As David Temkin mentioned, “rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions” are a key driver in Google’s cookie epiphany. The EU’s ePrivacy Directive requires user consent before non-essential cookies are set on devices. Not only that, but the consent given must meet the GDPR’s strict standard for valid consent.