On Friday, UK’s antitrust authority announced a new investigation into Google’s plan to end support for third party cookies in Chrome. The probe, it explained, is meant to determine whether the change “could cause advertising spend to become even more concentrated on Google’s ecosystem,” potentially choking out competing companies that are — for the most part — already gasping for air.
On one hand, the full set of proposals Google’s putting forward do sound like a pretty good deal, especially for the privacy-focused among us. Broadly speaking, the changes in what Google calls its “Privacy Sandbox” would put a “budget” on the amount of data that sites across the web could draw from the people surfing them, and would keep advertisers from tracking those surfers on an individual basis. Instead, users would be lumped into aggregated “interest groups” based on their in-browser activity, and advertisers could target these instead. While all of this data is generally handled by a chain of intermediaries, part of Google’s proposal mandates that the browser — in this case, Chrome — would be solely responsible.
In short: Google’s proposing to protect our personal details by… preventing anyone that isn’t Google from getting access. As we’ve said before, this looks a lot like a ploy for power, not privacy.
And we weren’t the only ones. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) inquiry is the result of several months worth of begging from Marketers for an Open Web, a major trade group representing digital media and adtech companies. Back in November, the group stated that Google’s proposal would lead to the company effectively controlling the means that any digital advertiser uses to reach the public — and that the change “will be irreversible.”
Even if you don’t give a shit about digital ads (which, really, who can blame you), that point should give you pause. Some analysts have estimated that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, pulled in $US149 ($191) billion dollars from digital ads in 2020 — meaning that close to a 25 cents ($0.32) of every dollar spent advertising online ended up in Google’s pockets; Youtube alone is projected to have earned around $US18.5 ($24) billion dollars, which would represent nearly 30% of all online video adspend for the entire year.
Unsurprisingly Google has also become the subject of three separate antitrust suits that all alleged, in one way or another, that Google’s steely grip over the digital ad market was the result of a longstanding track record of anticompetitive behaviour.
The CMA is the first authority to tackle Google’s proposed Sandbox head on, and striking a balance between consumer privacy and Google’s grip won’t be easy. Everyone agrees that cookies are creepy as hell, but the Justice Department, dozens of Attorneys General, and the House Antitrust Subcommittee all agree that Google has grown too big. Right now, the CMA is in the process of “engaging with Google” to understand the objectively byzantine technical roadmap that Google’s got laid out. Its goal right now is figuring out how to address the privacy-preserving aspects of the Sandbox, while weighing those against Google’s bloated position in the digital ad market. If all goes well, the CMA will emerge with a “legal basis” for what should come next.
“Creating a more private web, while also enabling the publishers and advertisers who support the free and open internet, requires the industry to make major changes to the way digital advertising works,” Google told Gizmodo in a statement. “The Privacy Sandbox has been an open initiative since the beginning and we welcome the CMA’s involvement as we work to develop new proposals to underpin a healthy, ad-supported web without third-party cookies.”