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Google Media Cookies

Google is doing what it does best: delaying third-party cookie deprecation, again


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

April 24, 2024 | 6 min read

Color the adtech industry less-than-surprised.

Cookies on a laptop screen

Once more, the cookie has a stay of execution

Google announced Tuesday that it will, for the third time, delay the deprecation of third-party cookies on its Chrome browser. It cited regulatory hangups and insufficient industry readiness.

“We recognize that there are ongoing challenges related to reconciling divergent feedback from the industry, regulators and developers, and will continue to engage closely with the entire ecosystem,” the company said in a blog post.

Google’s original deadline for third-party cookie deprecation, set for January of 2020, promised the elimination of the user tracking technology within two years, with the aim of increasing consumers’ data privacy on the open web. However, the tech giant has since hit the brakes twice, citing the need to provide the ad industry with additional preparation time amid a landscape fraught with uncertainty. As an attempt at dipping a proverbial toe in the water, Google phased out cookies for 1% of browser traffic in early January.

The decision to postpone once again, Google said Tuesday, was made in response to heightened regulatory scrutiny – particularly from the UK’s antitrust enforcer, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which has been closely monitoring the proposed transition.

The regulatory body in January flagged 39 unique “concerns” about Google’s plan to sunset third-party cookies. It’s fielding feedback on the transition plan through the end of June and needs “sufficient time to review all evidence including results from industry tests,” Google said.

The CMA is primarily concerned with how Google’s plan to wean itself off of third-party cookies could unfairly hinder competition. The regulatory body is evaluating how Google’s Privacy Sandbox – a sweeping initiative that includes a variety of tools designed to replace cookies for advertisers and publishers – may unduly preference Google’s own advertising products and further entrench the company’s market dominance in adtech (something that’s already being investigated in the US by the Department of Justice).

Beyond the CMA, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office has also voiced reservations about Google’s cookie transition plan.

“We welcome Google’s announcement clarifying the timing of third-party cookie deprecation,” a CMA spokesperson said in a statement shared with The Drum. “This will allow time to assess the results of industry tests and resolve remaining issues. Under the commitments, Google has agreed to resolve our remaining competition concerns before going ahead with third-party cookie deprecation. Working closely with the ICO, we expect to conclude this process by the end of 2024.”

Neither the CMA nor Google have provided an explicit timeline for the new transition plan.

It’s not just regulators seeing red flags in Google’s cookie transition plan.

Some publishers and adtech players have voiced concerns about the mechanics of the Privacy Sandbox’s auction, alleging that it creates a closed marketplace, eliminating the need for external demand- and supply-side platforms.

Google is also embroiled in a heated back-and-forth with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry trade group, which in February published a report identifying what it views as foundational problems with Privacy Sandbox, including challenges with advertising effectiveness, media measurement, brand safety, governance and transparency. Google disputed many of the claims in a 28-page retort.

Despite widespread scrutiny of its plans, a number of advertising industry stakeholders are pleased with Google’s decision to delay cookie deprecation until regulatory concerns are ironed out.

“Google made the right choice here,” says Paul Bannister, co-founder and chief strategy officer at adtech company Raptive.

Bannister expresses confidence that Google will be able to navigate the hurdles ahead of it. “The goal of third-party cookie deprecation is worthy and the Privacy Sandbox is flawed but powerful, and some more time will help solve those issues and push the ecosystem to solve these issues together.”

A delay – if it is only a slight delay as Google and the CMA seem to suggest – isn’t the end of the world, Amelia Waddington, chief product officer at search intelligence platform Captify, agrees. “If they really delay just until early 2025, this does not make a material difference to people who were already prepared, but might give a few more months of preparation for those that were starting to panic.”

Other industry leaders are less pleased with what they view as Google’s continuous foot-dragging. “While the industry has been buzzing about the pros and cons around Google Privacy Sandbox, I keep asking myself, ‘Isn’t the cookie just soggy at this point?’ Adtech firms like Liveramp, The Trade Desk and Magnite have already started to plant their flag in the ground with identity-free solutions,” says Lance Wolder, head of strategy and marketing at adtech firm PadSquad.

Wolder implores the adtech sector not to lose the momentum it has gained in the broader transition away from user identifiers like cookies and toward more privacy-safe alternatives. “As the decision to delay becomes official, my only caution to our industry is that we don’t keep pushing identity down the road – much of the cookie depreciation has already occurred.”

He adds: “Marketers who own their data and take a thoughtful approach to reaching and messaging with their customers and prospects are primed to win the biggest share of wallets.”

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