By Jason Bier, General Counsel and Chief Privacy Officer at Adstra
Last month, the ad industry celebrated Google’s announcement that it would be delaying deprecation of third-party cookies on Chrome for two more years, which gives Google, publishers, advertisers and developers more time needed to build suitable alternatives. The industry-wide sigh of relief was understandable, with many industry players encouraging diligence in maintaining momentum behind the pursuit of alternatives.
But here’s the thing: Google’s announcement is nothing but smoke and mirrors. This “delay” isn’t a delay. It’s Google’s way of saving face as it backs away from cookie deprecation altogether. The cookie isn’t going anywhere, and Google knows it.
Google’s move to kill the third-party cookie was a childish and thinly veiled attempt to hoard more value for itself at the expense of a fair and free internet. But like an impulsive child, Google got caught with its hand in the cookie jar, and now it must pay the price. That price will come in the form of some of the most consequential antitrust actions this country has seen in decades—actions that will undo previous anticompetitive moves by Google, Apple and others, while ultimately reshaping the digital landscape forever.
We’ve Seen This Before
Although it might be hard to remember a time when “Googling” wasn’t a ubiquitously used verb, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the company is only 22 years old. In billionaire corporation years, that’s incredibly young—and the ignorance and petulance of Google’s youth is showing. The company wields a massive amount of control over the single most powerful technological force on the planet today—the internet—and yet it believes it can manipulate its operation and sustainability at will by simply glomming on to the global move toward online privacy safeguards. But Google doesn’t really care about user privacy—and regulators have seen through the ruse.
Google’s monopolistic position in the online space is obvious, and it’s increasingly leveraging that position to shut out competition and harm consumer access. Sound familiar? It should. Any student of history can point to numerous examples of similar past monopolies, some of which have given way to today’s widely accepted public utilities. The Sherman Antitrust Act itself was born on the backdrop of increasingly problematic abuses of power by railroad cartels and other large corporations.
When the few control the access and opportunities of the many, regulators must step in. It’s happening right now with Google—on a state, federal and global level—and the deprecation of cookies will be examined as just one of many examples of how Google is abusing its control over the internet. As a part of this intervention, the cookie will be preserved and, in some cases, restored. And that’s good for pretty much everyone other than the internet titans themselves.
The Vital Role of the Cookie in Maintaining a Fair, Free Internet
The third-party cookie is essential to maintaining a balanced competitive landscape on the internet. It’s a vehicle for transmitting data in a neutral way across networks, and if you remove that vehicle, you take away the fairness and neutrality that enables companies to operate on a level (or at least somewhat level) playing field. Google knows that, and that’s why it wanted to deprecate third-party cookies in the first place. Apple knew it when it blocked cookies on Safari, as did Mozilla when it restricted cookies on Firefox. Together, these three companies have formed a multi-billion-dollar cartel that has put a stranglehold on the independent advertising ecosystem.
A lot has been written about the shortcomings of third-party cookies, but the simple fact is that the cookie is a basic utility of the internet age, and it’s high time it was regulated like one. With proper regulation and oversight, the cookie has the power to restore proper competition to the online advertising industry, benefitting publishers, advertisers and consumers alike, not to mention the free exchange of information. At its core, the cookie isn’t a threat to personal privacy. It’s a vehicle that allows companies to separate personal information from data relevant to monetizing an audience. Our perceptions have been skewed by years of anti-cookie commentary and a slow chipping away of the cookie’s utility across online environments. But what really needs to change is our perception of this highly valuable bit of technology.
Google’s monopolistic ambitions are out of control, and it’s time for the adults in the room to put the company back in its place. One of the first steps will be to pull the company’s hand out of the cookie jar and ensure that third-party cookies remain the accessible, neutral vehicle for information transmission that they were always intended to be. It’s highly likely that the downstream effect of actions against Google will result in Apple and Mozilla having to reverse their own actions against the cookie and reinstate it as a default feature of their browsers. Again, this would benefit pretty much everyone, save for Google, Apple and Mozilla themselves.
In the years to come, we’ll look back on the current and forthcoming antitrust actions against Google and wonder why it took so long. In the meantime, just hang tight. Your cookies aren’t going anywhere.