In about two years from now, Alphabet Inc’s Google plans to block the use of cookies — the most popular way businesses and websites track online surfers — in its Chrome browser through an initiative the company described as the ‘Privacy Sandbox’. The move, a result of increasingly vocal privacy demands from users, can have fundamental effects on ways online businesses are conducted, not least the costs involved in ushering in an almost generational change in how the web operates.

Google, one of the biggest technology giants of our times, specialising in Internet-related services and products that include online advertising technologies, search engine, cloud computing, software, and hardware, aims to restrict advertising software companies and others from linking their browser cookies to websites “they do not operate”, the company said in a blog post on Tuesday. (http://bit.ly/2RmTYKK)

“Our goal for this open source initiative is to make the web more private and secure for users, while also supporting publishers,” said Justin Schuh, Director, Chrome Engineering, in the blog post.

Google’s announcement did not take the industry by surprise as such a decision was in the making for some time now. Analysts, however, expect very little effect on Google’s own ad business as it collects data on users in several other ways. Technology rival Apple had made a somewhat similar move in 2017 in its Safari browser. 

Chrome’s global market share in the business stands at a colossal 64%, according to tracking company Statcounter. Expectedly, shares of a few rival advertising software companies dropped on Tuesday, including Criteo SA by 8% and Trade Desk Inc by 1.4%.

Cookies are essentially a tool inbuilt within browsers that let website owners and operators to save data about users and their browsing habits. Cookies can also let an user logged into a website over several days. 

Cookies have had a nearly free run for close to three decades and have helped stimulate advertising on the internet. 

We are confident that with continued iteration
and feedback, privacy-preserving and open-standard mechanisms like the Privacy Sandbox can sustain a healthy, ad-supported web in a way that will
render third-party cookies obsolete

— Justin Schuh, Director, Chrome Engineering

That said, cookies have also given relatively unknown and obscure software vendors — whose technology website operators use — insights into the webpages a user has been visiting. This insight is a prized commodity in the online market, something which advertisers, in turn, capitalise on. Such data, when shared with advertisers, help them with predictions about the sort of ads an individual browser would find relevant or useful — the key to targeted or personalised advertising.

“After initial dialogue with the web community, we are confident that with continued iteration and feedback, privacy-preserving and open-standard mechanisms like the Privacy Sandbox can sustain a healthy, ad-supported web in a way that will render third-party cookies obsolete,” says Justin.

On the regulatory and privacy side of things, users and regulators have both often asked how businesses with access to such vast amounts of browsing data store and share them. In fact, recent data breaches and new privacy laws in California and Europe have triggered significant changes in the internet business.

“Some browsers have reacted to these concerns by blocking third-party cookies, but we believe this has unintended consequences that can negatively impact both users and the web ecosystem. By undermining the business model of many ad-supported websites, blunt approaches to cookies encourage the use of opaque techniques such as fingerprinting (an invasive workaround to replace cookies), which can actually reduce user privacy and control. We believe that we as a community can, and must, do better,” adds Justin.

However, Google has said its new policy will not be brought into effect until alternatives that the tech giant Google considers more “privacy-preserving” are practicable. 

“We’ll also continue our work to make current web technologies more secure and private. As we previously announced, Chrome will limit insecure cross-site tracking starting in February, by treating cookies that don’t include a SameSite label as first-party only, and require cookies labelled for third-party use to be accessed over HTTPS. This will make third-party cookies more secure and give users more precise browser cookie controls,” adds Justin.

Any generational transition in web technology will call for considerable investment by website operators. What, however, could be of critical interest is if limited data on users would lead to lower online ad prices.

Justin Schuh, a director for Chrome engineering at Google, said initial feedback to proposals it announced in August “gives us confidence that solutions in this space can work.”

To assuage widespread apprehensions among web users, particularly about invasive techniques used by some website operators, Justin further says, “at the same time, we’re developing techniques to detect and mitigate covert tracking and workarounds by launching new anti-fingerprinting measures to discourage these kinds of deceptive and intrusive techniques, and we hope to launch these measures later this year.”

As of December 2019, Google’s parent company Alphabet became the most “cash-rich” company in the world for the second time in a row in terms of market capitalization with over $117 billion in cash, outperforming its tech rival Apple.

Google boasts over a billion users on at least seven of its products in its business bouquet – YouTube, Chrome, Gmail, Search, Google Play, and Chrome. Google serves over 75,000 queries per second, translating to a little over 2 trillion searches per year.