Google is in a tough spot. The company says it’s committed to: protecting the privacy of its users, but it’s also built one of the world’s most profitable businesses around the idea that if you track what users do online, you can show them ads tailored to their interests and activity.
The real problem for Google is that not only is it the most popular search engine in the world, but it makes the most used browser in the world, Chrome. This gives the company extraordinary influence over how billions of people use the internet.
Over the past few years, other browser makers have started taking steps to better protect user privacy. Safari and Firefox now block third-party cookies, software used to track users across different websites or apps. Both also offer protection against device fingerprinting, which uses other types of data such as browser, screen resolution, IP address and browser extensions, in order to track them.
As pressure to eliminate cookies continued to mount, Google said in a 2019 blog post that it would begin exploring ways to make the web respect user privacy:
We believe that with continued iteration and feedback, open standards and privacy preservation mechanisms such as the Privacy Sandbox can support a healthy, ad-supported web in a way that will make third-party cookies obsolete. Once these approaches have met the needs of users, publishers, and advertisers, and we have developed the tools to mitigate workarounds, we plan to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome. We intend to do so within two years.
Privacy Sandbox is what Google describes as “a secure environment for personalization that also protects user privacy.” It appears Google agreed at the time that cookies were bad, but said it was not prepared to block cookies as it would lead to greater privacy concerns such as fingerprinting device digital.
Then Google published a blog post in January 2020 that said the company was working on “a path to removing third-party cookies,” within two years. The road has been very long. In fact, the path has only lengthened.
Now, Google has extended that deadline even further. It now says it won’t phase out third-party cookies until the second half of 2024. If you do the math at home, it’s been over two years already. Google now says there will be at least two more.
Part of the reason is that Google can’t just block cookies without finding something to override them, even if it wanted to. Tracking, after all, is the lifeblood of the digital advertising economy.
Ironically, Google would be better off if it just blocked third-party cookies wholesale. It doesn’t really need that kind of data since it already has so much information about you based on the Google websites you use.
Take ads on the Search Network, for example. You don’t need to track what might be a relevant ad to show someone when they literally tell Google what they’re looking for. There has never been such a personalized advertising opportunity, ever.
At the same time, all other advertising platforms depend on third-party cookies to track user information across websites and to provide important data such as ad conversions. Closing these cookies in Chrome would put them at a significant disadvantage compared to Google.
In theory, blocking cookies would be good for Google, except it would be considered very uncompetitive. It may be better for privacy, but it would be devastating for publicity.
And so Google tried to find a way to get rid of cookies, but also provide a replacement that balances privacy and advertising. So far, it hasn’t gone well. His first effort, known as FLoC, was widely criticized and rejected by both digital advertisers and privacy advocates. He’s since moved on to what he calls Topics, which effectively uses Chrome to do all the tracking, which I suspect is more privacy-friendly because advertisers don’t know anything about the individual users they’re targeting.
Yet tracking is tracking and privacy is privacy. With this latest delay, Google has made it clear that it could enforce the web on the latter, but it won’t because it can’t let go of the former.