Google has been looking to improve user privacy in its products for the past few years, an initiative that seems counterintuitive. Google makes money from ads and personalized advertisements based on tracking and profiling make the most money. But a combination of factors has forced Google to put privacy at the center of its products. Apple was the first big tech company to have made a big deal about privacy in recent years. Apple has been devising more sophisticated features to prevent user tracking and improve privacy online. It’s not just peer pressure that forced Google to reconsider privacy, however. Google went through a string of privacy-infringing scandals of its own over the years, drawing attention to its massive user-tracking initiatives.
One of Google’s big plans to improve user privacy concerns one of its most popular products, the Chrome browser. Google wants to block third-party cookies in Chrome, which would make it harder for other companies to track users. But Google just announced it won’t offer this privacy improvement very soon — the company has delayed third-party cookie blocking to 2023. That’s about a year later than the company had initially planned. And it might be Google’s own fault for not being able to remove Chrome third-party cookies sooner.
Google explained in a new blog post that it has an updated timeline for Chrome’s plan to phase out third-party cookies. That’s because “more time is needed across the ecosystem to get this right.” Google explained that “the Privacy Sandbox initiative aims to create web technologies that both protect people’s privacy online and give companies and developers the tools to build thriving digital businesses to keep the web open and accessible to everyone, now, and for the future.”
It’s only later in the post that we learn Google’s plan to remove third-party cookie support from Chrome is “subject to our engagement with the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).”
The involvement of a regulatory body in the matter is a key detail, and it hints that Google’s problem might be bigger than just improving privacy in Chrome. As The Verge points out, Google is in a tough spot because Chrome is a dominant player in the industry and Google has faced plenty of antitrust investigations over the years, some of them resulting in massive fines in Europe.
Should Google remove third-party cookies support from Chrome too quickly, then it might hurt some of its direct competitors in the advertising business. After all, Google can still track and profile users once third-party cookies disappear. But failure to act on third-party cookies will open the door to privacy scandals. Either way, Google might face the wrath of regulators who are paying close attention to Big Tech.
Google addressed the controversial FLoC tech in the same blog post, which is short for Federated Learning of Cohorts. It’s supposed to be a privacy-friendly tracking feature that would allow advertisers to target ads to groups of people with similar interests. But FLoC drew massive criticism from Google competitors who run Chrome rivals, who went on record to say they won’t support FLoC tracking. Google said it heard the feedback and plans to conclude the trial soon so it can potentially make changes to its FLoC tech before moving forward:
The technologies are rigorously tested in Chrome through potentially numerous origin trials, allowing for transparency and feedback throughout. For example, we received substantial feedback from the web community during the origin trial for the first version of FLoC. We plan to conclude this origin trial in the coming weeks and incorporate input, before advancing to further ecosystem testing.
Once the new technologies that will replace third-party cookies are rolled out, Chrome can start phasing out third-party cookies over the course of a three-month period ending in late 2023.