Google is once again delaying its big plans to prevent its Chrome browser from tracking you. Its long-standing promise to block third-party cookies will now begin in the second half of 2024, at least. This is the second time the company has had to delay the deadline. Both times, the company blamed the delay on difficulties finding a new way to track users that was still privacy-friendly.
Google’s business model has also factored into the decision: it relies on third-party cookies for some of its lucrative advertising business and is a major player in the digital advertising ecosystem that will be disrupted by the change. So Google has never been so eager to do it.
Third-party cookies are how advertising companies and data brokers track you across the Internet. They can see what sites you go to and use them to build a profile of you and your interests, which is then used to target ads to you.
People who care about their online privacy generally don’t like being tracked in this way. Some browsers have responded to this by blocking third-party cookies and making their privacy a selling point. You can check out Recode’s browser guide for more information, but Apple’s Firefox, Brave, and Safari already block third-party cookies by default and have for some time. Chrome, on the other hand, has dragged its heels to do the same. Now it drags them down even more.
Google announced in January 2020 that it would remove third-party cookies from Chrome by 2022. The company promised to use those two years to find a more private alternative that users and advertisers (and Google) would be happy with. Since then a few attempts have been launched, most notably the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).
The problem is that FLoC doesn’t completely stop tracking. Rather, it puts that tracking directly into Google’s hands: Chrome users’ Internet activity will be tracked through the browser itself, and then Google will group users into large groups based on their interests. Advertisers can then target groups, rather than the individual. It’s supposed to keep users anonymous while allowing advertisers to target them, but it also gives Google much more control over the information collected through it and advertising companies much less. Google was pretty excited about FLoC, but it wasn’t exactly popular with privacy experts, ad tech companies, or regulators. The United Kingdom and the European Union are investigating whether it violates their antitrust laws.
So Google, which to be fair has said all along that 2022 was a projected date and not absolutely certain, announced in June 2021 that it would need more time to institute its cookie ban.
“We must move forward at a responsible pace,” the company said in a blog post at the time. “This will allow sufficient time for public discussion on appropriate solutions, continued engagement with regulators and for publishers and the advertising industry to migrate their services. This is important to avoid jeopardizing the business models of many web publishers that support freely available content”.
That last sentence is key—it’s a reminder that your data is the “free” currency of the Internet.
Any company that trades in this currency will always find a way to collect it.
Google’s new timeline was at the end of 2023, but on Wednesday, the company announced that it would have to push that back again. Google’s reasoning was that it still needs more time to find an acceptable replacement for cookies after other attempts like FloC failed.
“We now intend to begin phasing out third-party cookies in Chrome during the second half of 2024,” the company said in its Wednesday post. More than two years from now, and at least four and a half years since the company first announced it was working to remove these cookies.
The length of time it has taken indicates that getting rid of third-party cookies is not a priority for the company, or that they are so integrated into the online tracking ecosystem that it is very difficult to find a suitable replacement.
Chrome is the most popular browser out there, and it’s also the only one run by a company with a major ad platform. Getting rid of cookies and tracking will hurt Google. That’s not a factor for its rivals, which is why they’ve been quick to adopt anti-tracking tools, and Google is lagging behind until it can find a way to make tracking more palatable.
Update, July 27, 2022 at 2:25 p.m.: It has been updated to reflect that Google’s one-year delay is now a two-year delay, with tracking changes now planned for 2024.