Mint Primer | Tracking cookies: Does Google care about your privacy?

Chrome is the most popular web browser globally—over 60% of search engine use takes place on Chrome. (iStockphoto)
Chrome is the most popular web browser globally—over 60% of search engine use takes place on Chrome. (iStockphoto)

Summary

  • Google has started testing its Privacy Sandbox initiative for Chrome. By ending cookies, the tech giant wants people to believe that it will boost user privacy

Google has started testing its Privacy Sandbox initiative for Chrome. By ending cookies, Google wants people to believe that it will boost user privacy. Mint analyses what the move means for advertisers, users and Google’s $250 billion ad-revenue empire.

What’s the issue with 3rd party cookies?

Google isn’t the first company to move against third-party cookie tracking. Web browsers such as Safari, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft’s Edge have made it possible to block third-party cookie tracking. Cookies, small snippets of code stored on users’ devices, recognize a user and track what they do on the web. This creates a digital footprint, which advertisers then use to target users with products and services. Google first pitched the idea of stopping cookie tracking in 2020, saying that the move will help “transparency, choice, and control how data is used"—and keep up with regulations globally.

What is the Privacy Sandbox approach?

The Privacy Sandbox replaces granular cookies with ‘Topics’—a model where Chrome will keep a tab of users’ search histories, and offer this to advertisers after anonymizing. The rationale is that instead of every single entity on the internet tracking a user, Google will protect user-privacy by giving advertisers indicative user- behaviour data. Instead of every party on the internet, Privacy Sandbox will be centered around Google controlling access to all user-data. While the trial has been commenced by 1% of all users of Chrome, Google will discontinue cookie tracking for all users by the third quarter of the calendar year.

Why is Google’s move significant?

Chrome is the most popular web browser globally—over 60% of search engine use takes place on Chrome. In the September quarter, digital ads contributed nearly 78% to Google’s global revenue. Its control of targeted ads on the internet is key for advertisers, as well as its own revenue growth. At the end of 2023, a total of 3.2 billion users accessed Chrome.

What’s the debate on Privacy Sandbox?

Privacy body Electronic Frontier Foundation says it is concerned that once this change comes into effect, Chrome will become the sole controlling entity of all user- data. This will give Google lopsided control of the internet as cookies have been integral to the internet since nearly its conception. Google has stated that Privacy Sandbox will protect users’ identity, and leave out sensitive identifiable information such as race and religion—hence curbing ads that may pose issues of bias.

What does the move mean for advertisers?

Advertisers around the world have raised concerns about Privacy Sandbox’s Topics architecture—on whether this might make targeted ads less efficient. To be sure, cutting back on targeted ads could lead to a significant drop in revenues of smaller brands. Privacy advocates also argue that this move might give Google total control over small businesses, which will be even more dependent on a Big Tech firm. The move might also draw scrutiny from regulators, especially in the US, UK, EU, India and Singapore.

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