As users become less and less comfortable with how much Google knows about them, many are increasingly switching to new privacy-first web browsers. The history of the browser wars offers a timely reminder of how quickly fortunes can change for big tech companies. Google famously read the room and set out to pave the way for a more private web by announcing that it would be making third-party cookies obsolete in 2022.
However, in a recent blog post by Google's Vinay Goel, it was revealed that it was giving cookies a stay of execution of sorts. The ambitious plans of phasing them out are now set for mid-2023 as more time was needed across the ecosystem to get it right. The search giant is currently caught between a rock and a hard place where it will upset either advertisers, regulators, or its users with any move they choose to make.
Apple, Microsoft, and Mozilla already enable users to block cross-site cookies. Google Chrome is by far the most popular web browser with 65% of the market. But the growing consumer awareness of privacy is creating a global demand for digital privacy. Google is essentially a data business, and its suite of free services comes at a much higher price than many realize. If you compare the privacy labels of the top web browsers, it quickly reveals the scale of the problems that Google has.
The tech giant is challenged with finding an alternative solution in the management of cookies and improving its privacy protection. But this direction would negatively impact publishers and ad tech platforms. To further muddy the waters, on the one hand, privacy regulators are demanding the eradication of 3rd party cookies, but on the other, competition authorities are holding them back due to the other problems it creates.
The European Commission is accusing Google of hiding user data from advertisers, which violates competition rules. Regulators are also concerned that any business that buys or sells ads will become heavily reliant on Google's new Privacy Sandbox. A lack of alignment about how to replace the 3rd party cookie in a way that keeps everyone happy means that Google is trapped in a complex problem of its own making.
There is no doubt that the third-party cookie is dying. But creating its replacement is proving to be challenging. Google's alternative Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) solution appears to have united all parties in thinking it's not the right answer. But unfortunately, what started as a bold statement to take privacy seriously has created more questions than answers.
One of the biggest problems is the disconnect between all parties. For example, big tech companies often advise that personalization is the best way to keep their consumers coming back for more. But get the balance wrong, and your audience will deem your personalized ads as creepy.
The fact that no other browser has expressed interest or intention to support Google's FLoC is quite telling. The industry desperately needs to make it easy for consumers to opt-out of data collection without ruining the user experience. In a world of one-click checkouts, having to read a cookie notice on every website and click several times to access a blog post is not sustainable.
There is a window of opportunity to build trust and engage with all parties to create an innovative solution that works for everyone. We now have at least two years until the proposed exit of third-party cookies from Chrome. But adding 2023 to a blog post is not a firm deadline. So, will brands use this extra time wisely, or will they continue with their old ways of working?
I suspect that this story is far from over, and the magnitude of the complex challenges ahead could even see the date pushed back even further. But two years is a long time in the world of technology where privacy is becoming critical to users. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) detailed why the implementation of FLoC in Google Chrome is a terrible idea. The voices speaking out against surveillance-based advertising are getting much louder.
The good news is that if you are a user that is increasingly concerned about how your online data is captured, packaged, and sold, these latest events are a reminder that you do have other options at your disposal. In the same way, you might have migrated from IE to Google Chrome many years ago. Maybe you should consider searching for a new search engine that aligns with your beliefs around digital privacy.
As arguments between brands, AdTech companies, legislators, and regulators continue to escalate, I would argue that all eyes should be on the users of Google Chrome. With the emergence of privacy-focused browsers, it won't be too long before many decide that they don't want to wait two years for a more private web. As a result, user privacy has become the battleground in a new browser war, which all parties cannot afford to ignore. What will your next move be?