Google is once again delaying its big plans to stop its Chrome browser from tracking you. Its long promised move to block third-party cookies will now begin in the second half of 2024 — at least. This is the second time the company has had to push the deadline back. Both times, the company blamed the delay on difficulties coming up with a new way to track users that was still privacy-friendly.
Google’s business model likely factored into the decision, too: It relies on third-party cookies for some of its lucrative ad business and is a major player in the digital advertising ecosystem that will be upended by the change. So Google has never been all that eager to make it.
Third-party cookies are how many ad companies and data brokers track you across the internet. They can see which sites you go to and use that to build a profile of you and your interests — which is then used to target ads to you.
People who care about their online privacy generally don’t like being tracked this way. Some browsers have responded to this by blocking third-party cookies and making their privacy bona fides a selling point. You can check out Recode’s guide to browsers if you want to know more, but Firefox, Brave, and Apple’s Safari already block third-party cookies by default and have for some time now. Chrome, by contrast, has dragged its heels to do the same. Now it’s dragging them even more.
Google announced in January 2020 that it would eliminate third-party cookies from Chrome by 2022. The company promised to use those two years to come up with a more private alternative that users and advertisers (and Google) would be happy with. It’s rolled out some attempts since then, most notably the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).
The problem is, FLoC doesn’t completely stop tracking. Rather, it puts that tracking squarely in Google’s hands: Chrome users’ internet activity will be tracked through the browser itself, and then Google will put users in large groups based on their interests. Advertisers can then target the groups, rather than the individual. That’s supposed to keep users anonymous while still letting advertisers target them, but it also gives Google much more control over the information collected through it, and ad companies much less. Google was pretty pumped about FLoC, but it wasn’t exactly popular with privacy experts, ad tech companies, or regulators. The United Kingdom and the European Union are investigating if it violates their antitrust laws.
So Google — which, to be fair, said all along that 2022 was a projected date and not an absolutely certain one — announced in June 2021 that it would need more time to institute its cookie ban.
“We need to move at a responsible pace,” the company said then in a blog post. “This will allow sufficient time for public discussion on the right solutions, continued engagement with regulators, and for publishers and the advertising industry to migrate their services. This is important to avoid jeopardizing the business models of many web publishers which support freely available content.”
That last sentence is key — it’s a reminder that your data is the “free” internet’s currency.
Any company that trades in that currency is always going to find a way to collect it.
Google’s new timeline was the end of 2023, but on Wednesday, the company announced that it would have to push that back again. Google’s reasoning was that it still needs more time to find an acceptable substitute to cookies after other attempts like FloC flopped.
“We now intend to begin phasing out third-party cookies in Chrome in the second half of 2024,” the company said in its Wednesday post. That’s more than two years from now, and at least four and half years since the company first announced that it was working on phasing out those cookies.
The length of time this has taken indicates either that getting rid of third-party cookies isn’t much of a priority for the company, or that they are so woven into the online tracking ecosystem that finding an adequate replacement for them is very difficult.
Chrome is the most popular browser out there, and it’s also the only one that’s run by a company with a substantial ad platform. Getting rid of cookies and tracking is going to hurt Google. That’s not a factor for its rivals, which is why they’ve been quick to adopt anti-tracking tools and Google is lagging behind until it can find a way to make tracking more palatable.
Update, July 27, 2022, 2:25 pm: Updated to reflect that Google’s one-year delay is now a two-year delay, with changes in tracking now projected for 2024.