Google’s plan to remove third-party cookies gets UK watchdog approval

14 Feb 2022

Image: © bennymarty/Stock.adobe.com

The UK’s competition authority said it would keep a ‘close eye’ on Google as the tech giant works on proposals to remove third-party cookies from Chrome.

Google has received a green light for its plans to remove third-party cookies on its browser, as the UK’s competition authority accepted a revised commitment relating to the company’s Privacy Sandbox.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation in January 2021 over concerns that the Privacy Sandbox would cause online advertising spending to become even more concentrated on Google.

Future Human

Following the investigation, the CMA said that Google agreed to a number of legally binding commitments relating to the development of the Privacy Sandbox. These include a more transparent process, including engagement with third parties and publishing test results.

The tech giant also agreed to not remove third-party cookies until the CMA is satisfied that its competition concerns have been addressed.

“The commitments we have obtained from Google will promote competition, help to protect the ability of online publishers to raise money through advertising and safeguard users’ privacy,” the CMA said in a statement on Friday (11 February).

The watchdog’s CEO, Andrea Coscelli, said it is under “no illusions that our work is done” as it moves into a new phase where it will “keep a close eye on Google” as it develops its proposals. The competition watchdog added that it may reopen its investigation and impose “interim measures” if necessary.

Google proposed a third-party cookie ban on Chrome that was intended to come into effect in 2022, but was pushed back to 2023 after a mixed response to its alternative proposals. The ban was a win for the privacy conscious but concerns were raised by the ad industry.

Google announced the Privacy Sandbox to try balance these concerns. It’s an initiative to create technologies that both protect user privacy and give companies and developers tools for online advertising to replace third-party cookies.

The CMA was concerned during its investigation that the proposals could undermine the ability of online publishers, such as newspapers, to generate revenue and continue to produce valuable content in the future, reducing the public’s choice of news sources.

Last week, a group of major publishers filed an antitrust complaint with the EU against Google relating to its adtech “stranglehold” over press publishers and related businesses.

The group claimed that Google is “rife with conflicts of interests” in its adtech suite by representing both the buyer and seller in the same transaction while also operating the auction house in the middle and selling its own inventory.

Google is still in the process of trying to balance privacy concerns with the demands of the ad industry. Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLOC) was a controversial interest-based ad project that was proposed.

However, this was replaced with Topics last month, an API that runs on Chrome to place websites visited by users into categories. A developer trial of Topics with user controls will be launched on Chrome soon.

Google said on Friday that is has been working with the CMA and the Information Commissioner’s Office to address competition concerns.

“The aim, through this regulatory oversight and supervision, is to provide reassurance that the Privacy Sandbox will protect consumers and support a competitive ad-funded web, and not favour Google,” wrote EMEA legal director for privacy William Malcolm and legal director Oliver Bethell in a post.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com