Modern tech companies commodify “the stuff of human nature”, the social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff wrote in her 2019 bestseller The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. If that’s the case, then website cookies — lines of computer code that track your behaviour online — are a big part of how they do it. Which made it all the more intriguing when Google promised earlier this year to phase out third-party cookies on its popular Chrome browser. This week it announced it was trialling an alternative system.
Where the titans of 20th century industry relied on raw materials such as oil, Silicon Valley giants have built much of their fortunes on behavioural data. Cookies are stored on your device when you visit websites and enable internet advertising to be highly targeted to your tastes, or what it calculates are your tastes. They are the reason you will frequently see online adverts for things you have just been browsing. The practice raises questions about the privacy implications of companies ‘following’ people as they use the web.
Google’s decision marks a potential break with a model that revolutionised the advertising business. Rather than allow other companies to track your individual activity, it is proposing to put users into groups, or cohorts, based on common interests. As the Tech Crunch website put it this week, a cohort is “specific enough to allow advertisers to… show you relevant ads, but without being so specific as to allow marketers to identify you personally”. Users can opt out of a cohort, and Google says the system will allow greater anonymity.
The move comes as company faces competition investigations in the US, the UK and Europe, and it has prompted a number of questions.
“A key issue that I would see for businesses and for consumers is transparency,” says Steven Roberts, head of marketing at Griffith College and author of Data Protection for Marketers: A Practical Guide. “It’s a fundamental principle within the GDPR [European data privacy law]. Individuals need to know in simple and transparent terms how their personal data is being processed, for what purpose, by whom and for how long. Whatever new systems are introduced to replace third-party cookies, they will need to meet that criterion of transparency.”
From a privacy perspective, Roberts says that the impact of replacing cookies on Chrome with what Google calls ‘federated learning of cohorts’, or FLoC, will take time to establish.
“While overall, a move away from third-party cookies is to be welcomed, privacy and compliance professionals will need time to get a detailed understanding of FLoC,” he says. “For example, will groups be created relating to sensitive category data such as health or political affiliation? At what point does a cohort become small enough that those included within it are potentially identifiable? How long will the information be retained?”
There is also the question of what it means for businesses. “For businesses more generally, and from a marketing perspective, they will be watching this move closely,” Roberts says. “They will need time to understand the implications for their digital marketing activity — in particular, whether this new technology is as effective in reaching specific consumer audiences.”
Responses to Google’s plans have been mixed, with critics highlighting a lack of clarity about what the changes will mean in practice, the continued use of behavioural profiling and the fact that browsers such as Safari and Firefox have already blocked third-party cookies.
“Google has been at the forefront of the tracking industry for over a decade and has become one of the biggest companies in the world by virtue of that,” says Dr Johnny Ryan, a senior fellow at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and a senior fellow at the Open Markets Institute. “When Google says that says advertisers don’t need to track people, that signals an enormous change in its approach, if that’s a genuine statement.”
Ryan has previously reported Google to the Data Protection Commissioner over concerns about possible privacy breaches in the way it sells advertising.
He mentions Brave, a company he used to work for, which has developed a browser with heightened security protections, including blocking website trackers. “If Google is taking an approach that is like Brave’s, then this a major moment for data protection,” he says.
Data protection refers to the measures companies, governments and other institutions are expected to take when it comes to safeguarding personal information. Given how easily it allows information to be created, stored and circulated, the internet presents a major challenge.
“It may be that [Google’s plan] makes a big impact on the protection of people’s data and that people’s data may no longer leak out to thousands of companies,” Ryan says. “The net effect of that is that you wouldn’t have data brokers [people who collect and sell information on private individuals and companies] in the same position to build profiles about us.”
While much of what these changes will mean remains unclear, Ryan says: “One thing you can be sure of is Google will not lose.”