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The cookie crumbles


Our digital strategy director Jo on the demise of Google cookies. Or not, as the case may be.

Have you used the internet at any point in the last 27 years? Yes? Then you will, by default, have used a cookie.

Cookies are small text files that are passed between your computer and the websites you visit. They were originally created back in 1994 with the goal of helping the internet remember you to give you a smoother online experience.

First-party cookies are associated with individual websites – they are the ones that recognise you when you’ve signed in. They help website owners provide personalised user experiences, give session-based functionality such as shopping carts, and measure how visitors access their sites. They’re not going anywhere.

It’s third-party cookies that are in danger – the one that advertisers use to target you as a named individual – to triple check you don’t want to book that campsite in Wales. Those cookies follow you around the web reminding you about that campsite, even though you’ve moved on and are now dreaming about The Bahamas. Third-party cookies’ days are numbered.

Apple (Safari), Microsoft (Edge) and Mozilla (Firefox) have already stamped down on third-party cookies by blocking them. But when/if – Google (Chrome) does the same it will be the most impactful, thanks to its 65% market share.  It is also the most contentious: Google makes a lot of money from advertising and, until the third-party cookie issues are addressed, its users are particularly vulnerable.

Chrome is isolated as the only major browser that has not yet acted to stop cross-site tracking,” writes Zak Doffman, a cybersecurity expert, in Forbes. “The only browser… that collects vast amounts of data, all of which link back to user identities.”

It’s uncertain what’s coming next. But a hint is Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative, launched in 2020, which, it declared, was designed “to develop a set of open standards to fundamentally enhance privacy on the web”. In short, this will allow marketers to continue advertising to customers but using anonymised, aggregated data which won’t compromise users’ privacy.

And as part of this, you’re likely to be hearing a lot more about FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts). This is where Google looks at your browsing history and sorts you into a variety of interest groups rather than individuals – which can then be targeted with ads.

But not everyone is happy. Advertisers question the effectiveness of FLoC targeting, while regulators question that these new approaches really promote privacy. And there’s also the concern that these developments only serve to further entrench Google’s grasp over ad tech in general.

All of this – plus the vast amounts of advertising money at stake – may explain why Google has opted to postpone phasing out support for third-party cookies until late 2023 – with some industry commentators questioning whether it will even happen then.

“It’s become clear that more time is needed across the ecosystem to get this right…” says Vinay Goel, Privacy Engineering Director at Chrome. “We need to move at a responsible pace.”

So, the cookies are crumbling, but will be with us for a little longer.

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