Google has said it won’t build alternative tracking tools after it phases out third-party cookies in its Chrome browser just as privacy-focused rival Brave unveiled plans to launch its own search engine.
Privacy activists and advertising communities have given mixed reactions to the multi-trillion dollar company’s decision to not create alternative individual-user-level tracking tools.
Last year Google set out its intentions to remove support for third-party cookies from 2022 in a move towards “a more privacy-first web”. Now, the Mountain View-headquartered company says it will use “privacy-preserving APIs” in its web products, which it says will “prevent individual tracking while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers”.
Third-party cookies are used to gain insights into user behaviour across the web – such as the type of websites they are visiting – which advertisers then use, most obviously to most of us by advertising products which we have previously looked at. Third-party tracking cookies can, however, have significant implications for privacy: it can be possible for website operators to learn all about a visitor’s previous browsing history. Competing web browsers Firefox and Safari already block these cookies.
Advertisers rage against the change
While the move to phase out third-party cookies may be welcomed by privacy advocates and privacy-concerned consumers, it has attracted criticism from other groups, with some expressing that it may give Google an unfair advantage over its competitors.
Digital advertisers, whose business models currently rely on tracking users and generating targeted advertising, have stated that Google will continue to have access to user data through its own products even once it has ceased support for third-party cookies. The detractors argue that, while the $2tn company will keep its own user data, other organisations will consequently be required to significantly alter how they measure user behaviour. They may simply have to pay Google for the information they need.
“Chrome’s plan to switch off third-party cookies in the name of user privacy is definitely starting to loom on the horizon with the initial two-year window it suggested meaning sometime towards the end of 2021,” said Phil Acton, country manager of UK and BeNeFrance at Adform. “Without a sustainable identity solution to replace the cookie when Google makes the change, large parts of the advertising ecosystem will cease to function as they do today.”
According to a recent survey by Adform, 90% of brands in the UK do not have a solution in place for when support for third-party cookies will be withdrawn.
Marketers for an Open Web also voiced concerns, saying that “marketers rely on cross-publisher IDs to measure and improve how well their advertising works across the open web. Without this feedback, marketers will receive a lower return from advertising and would hence pay publishers less”.
Google has countered, claiming that advertisers do not need to track individual consumers, and can use aggregated, anonymised data instead.
The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is currently investigating the move, which it says could have a “significant impact” on not only the digital advertising industry, but online publishers such as news websites as well.
In July last year, the CMA published a report on online platforms and digital advertising and warned that weak competition “undermines the ability of newspapers and others to produce valuable content, to the detriment of broader society”.
However, others have argued that Google’s decision could bring about “new opportunities” for digital advertisers.
“Google’s announcement is exactly what we need; it’s saying to the industry they’re not helping advertisers get around the demise of third-party cookies, either,” said Christopher Kenna, CEO of Brand Advance. “Finally, I hope this means that the industry will realise that context is king.”
“The industry has lost sight of the fact that people gravitate towards the content they want to read and therefore the things they are interested in. I’m excited to see that we’re moving away from third-party cookies as it will force the industry to think differently and wake up to reaching audiences authentically.”
Growing pressure to change
Google’s decision to do away with third-party cookies comes as the tech behemoth’s market dominance is increasingly being challenged both by regulators and competitors.
Lawmakers around the world have voiced their concerns in recent years over Google’s vast size restricting competition in the market. In February, Australia introduced a new law designed to force Google and Facebook to come to the negotiation table with news operators. Consequently, Google cut a deal with the biggest publishers in the country.
Google caving in to the lawmakers and publishers’ demands has been seen by some pundits as a way for it to avoid the risk that removing news results from its search results would break its search engine, which would in turn open up the market to rivals.
During the presidential campaign in the United States, senator Elizabeth Warren was one of the politicians who loudly campaigned on the pledge to break up big tech.
In October 2020, the US Justice Department filed a lawsuit accusing Google of violating antitrust laws and aimed at preventing the company “from unlawfully maintaining monopolies through anticompetitive and exclusionary practices in the search and search advertising markets and to remedy the competitive harms.”
Google has denied the accusations and labelled them as “deeply flawed”.
Across the pond, the European commissioner for competition Margrethe Vestager has launched a wave of legal challenges over the years against big tech firms like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple.
As a result of her efforts, the European Commission fined Google €4.34bn in June 2018 for breaking antitrust regulations. Not only was the tech giant forced to cough up cash to pay the fine, but it also had to allow rival search engines to be available as options when people set up their Android phones.
An opportunity for alternatives?
And there are plenty of alternative search engines out there. Apart from well-known alternatives like Microsoft’s Bing, there is a smattering of smaller firms eager to step out of Google’s shadow.
This week privacy-focused web service provider Brave announced its plans to roll out a search engine of its own later this year after acquiring Talicat from defunct Google rival Cliqz.
“The current web is broken, with users plagued by online tracking, publishers losing revenue, and advertisers suffering from fraud,” Brendan Eich, CEO and co-founder of Brave Software, told Verdict.
Eich added that it’s “time for users to stand up to the surveillance economy” as he believes “privacy is a right for all, not just the technically expert or powerful, and users should not have to give up privacy and hand over data exploited by unknown parties in order to use the web.”
“Moreover, the web should not be controlled by a duopoly or a group of monopolies in adjacent markets imposing their practices and bending web standards toward serving their bottom lines,” Eich said. “With privacy, users can take back the control they deserve and force the surveillance economy to reform its invasive tracking.”
However, Google is at a clear advantage, having been developing its search engine and its adjacent revenue streams for two decades. Today, Google is worth north of $2tn. Brave has, according to Crunchbase, only raised $42m to date.
Nevertheless, Eich seemed unfazed against the prospect of going toe to toe with one of the biggest tech companies in the world, saying Brave’s approach is very different from the Mountain View giant’s.
“Trying to index the whole web as Google did requires becoming Google, which is both prohibitively expensive and morally hazardous,” he said. “Instead, Tailcat has built an incremental index based on anonymous queries and clicks from user communities going back to Cliqz, and Brave Search will continue to build this way. Users opt into helping us improve the index, and benefit from the transparent alternative to big tech. As always, we work from design to auditing and privacy pen-testing to prove our anonymity and privacy claims, and this holds for Brave Search too.”
Brave is not alone. Several of the challengers waiting in the wings have already defined their position as privacy-centric search engines with some success. DuckDuckGo has been profitable since 2014 whilst focusing on its users’ anonymity and privacy. It passed 100 million daily searches for the first time in January.
Seznam, Yandex, Neeva, You.com, and Mojeek are just some of the other alternatives out there looking to take some of Google’s spotlight.
There are also unconfirmed reports that Apple may be looking into launching a search engine of its own, having already made a software update in 2020 to show its own results over Google’s.
The iPhone maker has also seemingly paved the way for Google’s new focus on privacy. Earlier this year Apple announced that it would introduce a new app tracking transparency feature that would require third-party developers to ask for permission from iOS users before they tracked them.
Following the announcement, Bloomberg broke the news that Google was apparently working on a similar option for Android users. Although it should be mentioned that Google didn’t confirm that it was working on a similar service, a spokesperson told the publication: “We’re always looking for ways to work with developers to raise the bar on privacy while enabling a healthy, ad-supported app ecosystem.”