Google this week confirmed that it plans to make it easier for users of the most popular browser in the country to prevent tracking by ad-tech companies.
The company plans to offer a new mechanism in Chrome that will enable consumers to block third-party cookies -- meaning cookies set by ad-tech companies, including Google's own DoubleClick -- while preserving the first-party cookies that remember usernames and passwords.
Chrome's new feature will not operate by default, which probably means only the most privacy-conscious consumers will use the tool. Of course, much could depend on how clearly Google advertises and explains the cookie-blocking mechanism to consumers.
Regardless, the concept that users should be able to control the cookies on their devices is hardly new. On the contrary, web users have always been able to delete cookies that store the kind of information relied on by ad companies. But doing so can require some effort.
Currently, Chrome users who want to avoid being followed around the web by advertisers can download privacy extensions like Disconnect, which aims to prevent tracking, or navigate the web using “incognito” mode. Chrome users can also erase all cookies through the browser's privacy settings, or shed cookies in a more piecemeal company-by-company fashion.
While Google's move has drawn much attention this week, it is not particularly innovative. The default settings on Apple's Safari browser have long prevented ad-tech companies from setting tracking cookies. What's more, two years ago Apple also began deleting some first-party cookies -- meaning cookies set by web sites that consumers intentionally visit. (Some ad-tech companies were using those first-party cookies to circumvent Safari's ban on tracking.)
Google also said this week it plans to “more aggressively restrict” digital fingerprinting -- a controversial technique used by ad-tech companies that involves recognizing users based on data about their computers, such as browser versions, installed fonts and plug-ins.
“Because fingerprinting is neither transparent nor under the user’s control, it results in tracking that doesn’t respect user choice,” Google said this week in a blog post. The company added it plans to “detect and intervene against active fingerprinting efforts as they happen.”
Privacy advocates and other watchdogs have long raised concerns about digital fingerprinting. The standards group World Wide Web Consortium, directed by Web guru Tim Berners-Lee, warned in 2015 that digital fingerprinting -- along with other forms of tracking that are hard for users to control -- was "a blatant violation of the human right to privacy."
Google's decision to restrict fingerprinting follows a similar move by Apple, which said last year it will hinder fingerprinting by limiting the amount of data it sends to websites about users' devices. At the time, the ad industry blasted Apple over the decision, stating that it will harm advertisers' targeting efforts while also making security tools less effective.