The UK will probe Google's plan to eliminate third-party cookies in Chrome

Regulators are concerned that "Privacy Sandbox" changes could favor Google ads.

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Google is planning to eliminate third-party cookies in its Chrome browser by 2022, which sounds like a good thing for consumers worried about privacy. However, UK’s competition regulator has announced that its investigating the changes, out of concern that advertising dollars could “become even more concentrated on Google’s ecosystem at the expense of its competitors.”

To increase privacy while still allowing personalized ads, Google introduced something called the Privacy Sandbox project back in 2019. The aim is to banish third-party cookies that allow for bot fraud and fingerprinting that can track you across the internet. Those would be replaced by “trust tokens” that would still let advertisers provide relevant ads without tying the data to an individual.

As the CMA found in its recent market study, Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals will potentially have a very significant impact on publishers like newspapers, and the digital advertising market. But there are also privacy concerns to consider, which is why we will continue to work with the ICO as we progress this investigation, while also engaging directly with Google and other market participants about our concerns.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it found in a recent study that “[Google] could undermine the ability of publishers to generate revenue and undermine competition in digital advertising, entrenching Google’s market power.” It also said that it has received complaints from a group representing newspaper publishers and technology companies, alleging that Google may be “abusing its dominant position.”

Given those concerns, the CMA decided to conduct a formal investigation into Google’s changes. The regulator said it “has an open mind and has not reached any conclusions” at this stage as to whether any laws have been broken. It will continue to work with Google to address both privacy and competition concerns as development of the new tools progresses.

Meanwhile, Google told Engadget that it’s trying to balance privacy laws and the need to support “content creators, newsrooms, web developers, videographers” and other who rely on ad revenue. It added that the Privacy Sandbox proposals have not been finalized, and it will continue to collaborate with “technologists, businesses, publishers, regulators and others before making any changes in 2022.” A Google spokesperson also gave the following statement:

Creating a more private web, while also enabling the publishers and advertisers who support the free and open internet, requires the industry to make major changes to the way digital advertising works. The Privacy Sandbox has been an open initiative since the beginning and we welcome the CMA's involvement as we work to develop new proposals to underpin a healthy, ad-supported web without third-party cookies.