Google's Cookie Plans Could Have 'Dire Impact,' Digital Content Group Warns

The online publishing trade group Digital Content Next is weighing in against Google's recent decision to delay blocking third-party cookies in the Chrome browser.

In a letter sent to regulators in the United Kingdom, the organization says that while Google's plan to deprecate cookies set by ad-tech companies raises competitive concerns, the decision to postpone blocking them until 2023 is also problematic.

“While Google’s proposal to deprecate third-party cookies in its Chrome browser, in a manner that can’t possibly treat the rest of Google as a threat actor, could have a dire impact on the digital advertising landscape, preserving third-party cookies could have an equally dire impact on the ecosystem,” the organization says in comments sent last week to the UK's Competition and Market Authority.

The group -- which represents news publishers including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal -- adds that there is “significant evidence that the current system with third-party cookies, where sites are treated as interchangeable commodities, has not served trusted publishers’ interests.”

The organization cited a 2019 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon, the University of Minnesota and University California Irvine, which suggested benefits to publishers from behavioral targeting may have been overstated. The researchers reported one large publisher was able to increase revenue by just 4% when cookies were available. (The study was based on ads that appeared during one week in May of 2016, on websites owned by a large media company.)

Digital Content Next is calling for the U.K. regulators to develop a framework of principles that would include “transparency of ad auctions and prohibitions on self-preferencing and data collection across multiple contexts outside of consumer expectations.”

The organization adds that Google's Chrome browser “needs to return to its purpose as a user-agent giving the consumer simple and easy control over tracking by parties she hasn’t chosen to interact [with], and a strong prohibition in the case of tracking by Google where she has no practical alternatives due to Google’s monopoly power.”

Google said in January of 2020 that it planned to deprecate third-party cookies by 2022. But late last month, the company pushed back the change to the end of 2023.

When Google first said it would block cookies, privacy advocates generally cheered, but the ad industry criticized the decision.

The Association of National Advertisers and American Association of Advertising Agencies argued to Google last January that blocking cookies could "choke off the economic oxygen from advertising that startups and emerging companies need to survive."

Other critics -- including a Texas-led coalition of states -- claimed in an antitrust lawsuit that the move would be anticompetitive, because Google would still have access to data about Chrome users' web browsing histories.

Google has repeatedly said it planned to impose the same restrictions on its own ad-services products (including the former DoubleClick) as on outside ad-tech companies. Last month, the company formally made that commitment to regulators in the UK.

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