In the latest Google Chrome blogpost Google outline a new project called Privacy Sandbox. They say this is intended to protect user’s privacy, but in reality it is privacy harming and a betrayal of the role of what a web browser should be. Let me disect the main point they make.
1. Blocking cookies encourages bad behaviour
First, large scale blocking of cookies undermine people’s privacy by encouraging opaque techniques such as fingerprinting.
Ignoring the fact that this is essentially victim blaming, it’s also just plain wrong.
Browser fingerprinting is at least 10 years old at this point. The vast majority of advertising companies do not use it, and wouldn’t go near it because it breaks most countries privacy regulations. It’s just not worth the risk of doing it and facing a GDPR fine.
Browsers that aren’t Chrome actively block fingerprinting. Chrome is very behind the curve on blocking that, and it’s probably because of point 3.
Google are already one of the biggest users of fingerprinting technology. Recaptcha uses finger printing techniques to try to identify legitimate users vs bots. They’re not explicit about this but compare the experience in Chrome vs a browser like Firefox that blocks fingerprinting, where you’ll spend much of your time clicking on pictures of traffic lights or road signs.
2. Blocking cookies threatens the future of the web
Second, blocking cookies without another way to deliver relevant ads significantly reduces publishers’ primary means of funding, which jeopardizes the future of the vibrant web. Many publishers have been able to continue to invest in freely accessible content because they can be confident that their advertising will fund their costs. If this funding is cut, we are concerned that we will see much less accessible content for everyone. Recent studies have shown that when advertising is made less relevant by removing cookies, funding for publishers falls by 52% on average.
Here Google is asserting a fact, and making it look legitimate by citing studies. They are being doubly disingenuous here. Firstly let’s start with the claim that “blocking cookies significantly reduces publishers’ primary means of funding”. From a simple economic standpoint this argument makes no sense. If all cookies stopped existing it would likely have little impact on the total amount of money being spent on advertising - marketing still needs to happen. What will happen is the way the money is spent will change.
Firstly, advertisers will move back towards traditional methods of spending budget, finding the right context so that they’re ads are relevant. The net impact is that site like the Washington Post will probably see an increase in spending, and average Joe’s blog will see a drop. If anything the ROI for publishers will more accurately reflect the value of their content.
Secondly, they will fall back on other metrics to judge the performance of campaigns. Safari is already mostly untrackable to advertising companies, but there are very few advertisers that don’t spend on it. They recognise that as a demographic these users are particularly valuable. Instead of tracking each individual user they track the cohort to determine ROI. Sure it seems less accurate, but cookie based tracking tends to over inflate the value of digital advertising anyway.
And that recent study Google quote - guess who performed that. Yes, Google. And the only conclusion you can make from their study that in a competition between cookied users and uncookied users the uncookied users are worth less. This doesn’t tell you anything about a world where there are no cookies at all. The New York Times has disabled ad exchanges and seen revenues increase so there it seems there can be compatibility between privacy and advertising revenue.
So if Google’s arguments are completely bogus, why are they making them. Well, the simple answer is if you replace the word publisher with Google. If nobody can track then things are a level playing field and Google lose revenue. If cookies continue to exist then Google can continue to leverage their other products to force people into being tracked and shut the door on smaller advertising companies.
Conflict of interest
The biggest disappointment from this announcement is how Chrome’s roadmap has been so directly influenced towards enhancing Google’s advertising profits. Up until this point Google’s incentive has been to use Chrome to improve the web with the knowledge that getting users a better experience, with faster page loads and greater reliability, would mean users spend more time on the web and increase the total revenue of the advertising market, thereby also increasing Google’s revenue.
Between this move and last years incident where Chrome didn’t allow you to delete Google cookies, as well as the disingenuous arguments made for crippling ad blockers in Chrome, there’s been a big change to use the browser specifically as a competitive advantage for Google’s advertising business.
A web browser should be a piece of software that implements web standards to render content for the user. It should not be opinionated about that content and it should respect the wishes of the user - it is after all a piece of user installed software on the user’s equipment. It is up to the content providers to follow standards and best practices on their side to ensure that their content works on all browsers, but a web browser may do much more than just render a publisher’s content. Judging by the related Chromium blog post Google seem to have a different opinion, with all of their reasoning being publisher/revenue led, not user led.
The current system we have now is definitely flawed. Cookies were never meant to be available in a 3rd party context but eventually browsers adapted and we’re currently in a world were a user can have near complete privacy. Google’s proposed changes browsers should leak personal information by design, which is not OK.