What Google’s Latest Data Privacy Announcement Actually Means

The "G" Google logo against a wood-grain background
From the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Robyn Beck/Getty Images

When Google announced on Tuesday that it will bolster privacy protection online by eventually scrapping third-party cookies, the immediate response was almost equal parts praise, skepticism, and cynicism. The cacophony is fitting given the competing interests of the three largest stakeholders involved: internet users, advertisers, and Google itself.

According to a blog post by Chrome Engineering Director Justin Schuh, Chrome will phase out all third-party cookies on the browser by 2022. Until then, Google intends to make third-party cookies more secure and to continue to find (and crowdsource, apparently) less invasive alternatives for advertisers so that, as Schuh puts it, we can all have a “healthy, ad-supported web.”

Cookies are bits of data that websites can leave behind in a user’s browser. Third-party cookies, set by domains other than the website you’re currently on, serve as a trace for advertisers. For example, if you’re browsing a shopping site that leaves a cookie from an advertising company, that cookie can later be picked up again, letting that ad company know what pair of sneakers you were looking at earlier. Over time, ad companies use those third-party cookies to create a rich profile of what sites you visit, your interests, and more. Chrome will already be limiting insecure tracking come February, as part of the Privacy Sandbox initiative Google announced last August. But this latest move is significant because it locks down a timeline for finally cracking down on third-party cookies, which Schuh argues will enhance privacy.

Google’s motives are perhaps not as benevolent as Schuh claims. Chrome, which has almost 66 percent of the market, is not only under pressure from competing browsers—Safari and Firefox already blocked third-party cookies in 2017 and 2019, respectively—but also from data privacy laws. Gaia Bernstein, a Seton Hall law professor and director of the Institute for Privacy Protection, told me that changes to the legal landscape—like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation and the newly implemented California Consumer Privacy Act—are forcing companies like Google to portray themselves as leaders in privacy. According to Bernstein, Google may be essentially saying “Hey! We’re regulating ourselves, there’s no need to regulate us.”

“On its face, it sounds great,” Bernstein said. “I think the problem is we don’t really have enough information of what they’re doing,”

As for what this means for the average internet user, like many things related to privacy online, the effects are unclear. You probably won’t even really notice the change. “I think that to the consumer’s point of view it’s all pretty arcane,” said Gartner analyst Andrew Frank. Consumers are starting to care more about security online in a broader sense, Frank said, but changes to data collection through cookies might only be visible in the kinds of ads that do (or don’t) follow you around.

Advertisers, on the other hand, are scrambling to keep up. Frank sees Chrome’s new policy as “potentially extremely disruptive” for ad tech, since the industry has long relied on third-party cookies. Retailers whose main strategy is retargeting consumers around the web will be affected more than brands that simply aim to broadcast their message to a larger audience. According to Frank, the ideal alternative to third-party cookies for both consumers and advertisers will allow tracking with enough anonymous identification for marketing, but not the kind that identifies people as individuals with names, addresses, etc. Without such alternatives, many worry that advertisers will find other means of obtaining personal data.

It’s the company with vast pre-existing stores of personal data—and other means of acquiring more—that doesn’t seem to have much to lose. One of the most serious concerns about Google’s announcement centers on the antitrust implications of this move. But according to Bernstein, we don’t know whether this will “actually help [Google] entrench their monopolistic stature,” because we don’t really know what alternatives they’re going to come up with yet. Frank is likewise unconvinced that it’s “necessarily written in stone” that Google will be a big beneficiary in this change.

For now, while privacy advocates and advertisers alike furiously debate and pass judgment on Google’s proposals, all that we users can do is sit back, wait, and kick off our new sneakers.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.