The Cookie Is Dead, Long-Live the Cookie

By Kendl Friedman, COO, Semasio

Cookie deprecation is delayed… again. This is at least the third time Google has delayed cookie deprecation since it first promised to phase them out in 2020, delaying them in 2021 and then again in 2022. Since then, the AdTech industry has been scrambling to offer brands and agencies a viable solution to the vacuum that will be left in the cookie’s wake.

The identifier vacuum created by the impending “cookie-apocalypse” has spurred innovation within the industry and a host of solutions such as clean rooms and new identifiers that could replace the cookie such as ID5 and UID 2.0. While no single alternative identifier has emerged as the clear choice, there are definite indications that alternative identifiers are becoming more accepted by both advertisers and platforms alike. However, even alternative identifiers are also gaining regulatory attention, especially email-based identity technologies recently flagged by the state of California.

However, clean rooms have really taken off among larger entities as a novel method for navigating evolving data privacy concerns in the digital ad market.

At their core, clean rooms are a means to provide access to data across entities without exposing the data itself. They support algorithms designed to obscure exact matching between two datasets, allowing for the enrichment of one dataset against another while purporting to  prevent any backward engineering of the 1:1 matches. This technology does a very cool trick, and it does it well. However, the claim that its purpose is to protect user data privacy may not hold up.

Many clean room and Privacy Sandbox proposals have been scrutinized, with brands, agencies, industry organizations and regulators raising concerns that range from the cost prohibitive nature of a clean room to the expertise required (and therefore difficulty using one effectively) to the anti-competitive scenario that could occur if Google maintains browser cookies from Chrome, which accounts for most of the world’s Internet browser traffic, for use within their Privacy Sandbox only. According to the U.K. privacy regulator, Google’s Privacy Sandbox leaves gaps that could be exploited to undermine privacy and ultimately identify users, which ultimately defeats the purpose for cookie deprecation.

It could also be argued that clean rooms are pitched as a feature for privacy protection, but are actually more oriented towards data security and operational controls– a distinction that could be crucial. Clean rooms, rather than providing answers to important ethical questions about how consumer data is used or monetized, have the potential to raise new ethical questions around how data may be used. Rather than attempting to clear up the issues around, for example, whether consumers have explicitly consented to having their behavioral data from major corporations sold for profit, some have argued that ‘clean rooms’ are introducing a whole new set of issues around whether a consumer who does not wish to have their data monetized in this way will ever actually be able to control it.

If large platforms are going to wall off their data and prevent any 1:1 connection between their data sets and that of their partners, the system will become more opaque for consumers, creating the illusion of opt-out options that, in reality, only apply within limited internet domains and cannot be truly communicated or understood by consumers. These are complex issues that have been top of mind for both competition and privacy regulators in the US, Europe, and elsewhere.

Is the delay of cookie deprecation a bad thing? Probably not, but it’s likely to maintain uncertainty within the advertising industry while just prolonging the inevitable. Amidst the ongoing disruption, one thing is crystal clear: businesses want to respect consumer privacy and eliminate uncertainty by adopting effective alternatives to cookies, but it needs to make economic sense. Cookies have been a critical component of the $600B advertising industry, used for targeting ads to a desired market segment and measuring the impact and effectiveness of campaigns. Evolving away from the cookie won’t be easy, but it is necessary.

As we acknowledge the delay in phasing out of cookies, we must not overlook the potential of innovative solutions like next-gen contextual targeting and privacy-forward identifiers that enable commerce but still respect consumers’ rights. The call to evolve is not just a necessity—it’s a demand from consumers. We must rise to this challenge and adapt for a more privacy-conscious future.

The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Semasio or its employees.