Google is again delaying plans to phase out Chrome’s use of third-party cookies — the files websites use to remember preferences and track online activity. In a blog post, Anthony Chavez, Google’s VP of Privacy Sandbox, said that the company is now targeting the “second half of 2024” as the timeframe for adopting an alternative technology.
It’ll be a long time coming. Last June, Google said it would depreciate cookies in the second half of 2023. Before then, in January 2020, the company pledged to make the switch by 2022.
“We’ve worked closely to refine our design proposals based on input from developers, publishers, marketers, and regulators via forums,” Chavez wrote. “The most consistent feedback we’ve received is the need for more time to evaluate and test the new … technologies before deprecating third-party cookies in Chrome.”
Google’s efforts to move away from cookies date back to 2019, when the company announced a long-term roadmap to adopt ostensibly more private ways of tracking web users. The linchpin is Privacy Sandbox, which aims to create web standards that power advertising without the use of so-called “tracking” cookies. Tracking cookies, used to personalize ads, can capture a person’s web history and remain active for years without their knowledge.
Privacy Sandbox initially proposed using an in-browser algorithm, Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), to analyze users’ activity and generate a “privacy-preserving” ID that can be used by advertisers for targeting. Google claimed that FLoC was more anonymous than cookies, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation described it as “the opposite of privacy-preserving technology” and akin to “behavioral credit score[ing].”
Privacy Sandbox has also prompted regulators to investigate whether Google’s adtech aims are anticompetitive. In January 2021, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the U.K. announced plans to focus on Privacy Sandbox’s potential impacts on both publishers and users. And in March, 15 attorneys general of U.S. states and Puerto Rico amended an antitrust complaint filed the previous December saying that the changes in the Privacy Sandbox would require advertisers to use Google as a middleman in order to advertise.
Google earlier this year reached an agreement with the CMA on how it develops and releases Privacy Sandbox in Chrome, which will include working with the CMA to “resolve concerns” and consulting and updating the CMA and the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office on an ongoing basis. The company also said it would abandon FLoC for an ostensibly more anonymized approach, Topics, that learns about a person’s interests as they move around the web drawing on data from the last three weeks of their browsing history.
In the meantime, Chavez says that Google will expand a trial of its Privacy Sandbox technologies to “millions” of Chrome users beginning in August. It’ll then gradually increase the trial population throughout the year into 2023, offering an opt-out option to users who don’t wish to participate.
Google now expects Privacy Sandbox APIs to be launched and generally available in Chrome by the third quarter of 2023.
“Improving people’s privacy, while giving businesses the tools they need to succeed online, is vital to the future of the open web,” Chavez wrote. “As the web community tests these APIs, we’ll continue to listen and respond to feedback.”