Google's Alternative Measures to replace 3rd party cookies

As the internet has evolved over the years, issues related to user identity and data safety have become a serious concern. This has resulted in a spate of legislation across the US and Europe forcing ad tech companies and publishers to enact measures that give greater choice to consumers on how their data is shared online and to protect user privacy. In addition, browser developers have responded by curtailing third–party cookies. While  Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari have already blocked third-party cookies by default, Google Chrome announced they would follow suit in a phased-out manner.

Since third-party cookies are the primary way the ad industry has tracked users and measured the effectiveness of online advertising, this phase-out of cookies could have detrimental effects on the industry. Google, which derives a lion’s share of its revenue from ads obviously has a vested interest in ensuring the ad ecosystem stays healthy. So it has come up with various proposals that would safeguard privacy while enabling the ad industry to flourish. 

What Are Google’s Alternatives To Third-Party Cookies?

People looking for alternatives

Google proposed a set of alternative measures, including Privacy Sandbox, Cohort-based tracking, and Turtledove to collect information for advertisers while ensuring user’s privacy. The basic aim here is to establish an operating system that ensures healthy web practices, while still being able to serve relevant ads and track their performance. 

Google also stated that it will aggressively block non-cookie-based cross-site tracking practices like fingerprinting, cache inspection, link decoration, network tracking, and other Personally-Identifying Information (PII).

Privacy Sandbox

A vector image of how Google's Sandbox

Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposes to introduce a set of privacy-preserving APIs to operate the open web in the absence of third-party cookies. The privacy sandbox acts as a monitoring authority by not letting the user’s browser track any information related to the user’s personal identity while measuring information on Ad-selection and conversion for publishers and advertisers. 

Privacy Sandbox, in a way, offers a protected ecosystem for the user’s personal information. Under the stated ideal conditions, users would enjoy all the privileges of browsing the web with confidence that browsers are there to take care of their privacy. The proposed system will also allow the user to turn off any personalized advertising without degrading user experience on the web. 

Cohort-based Tracking

Cohort-analysis being done for certain profiles

Cohort-based tracking allows advertisers to target consumer behavior in aggregate based on the places they visit rather than being able to target users individually. A  number of FLoCs (Federated Learning of Cohorts) are made available on browsers to collect these details without infringing on the privacy of the consumer. Advertisers can decode this data for making decisions based on the ultimate action of the visitor after having browsed the site. This is still at a very formative level and several questions are emerging on how Google would execute this model.

Turtledove Model

Turtledove Model as a privacy measure

Turtledove offers a privacy-first method for retargeting users who have previously interacted with an advertiser or ad network. This model proposes to completely re-architect the current system so that user behaviors are not stored in a remote database but are stored in a browser. The key to how ad auctions run within this new system is found in TURTLEDOVE’s name, which stands for ‘Two Uncorrelated Requests, Then Locally-Executed Decision On Victory’.

TURTLEDOVE isn’t a usable API yet, so it is difficult to specify how and what all would change until it is implemented. But it gives an early indication of how web-based advertising might look in the future.

How Effective Are Google’s Alternative Measures?

A scale to measure effectiveness of the new Google Measures

Google’s proposed alternative measures will allow Ad-targeting, Measurement, and Fraud Prevention to happen according to the standards set by its Privacy Sandbox and aim to replace cookies with five application programming interfaces. Advertisers will use API to receive aggregated data about issues like conversion (how well their ads performed), and attribution (which entity is credited, say, for a purchase). 

Privacy Sandbox will provide an alternative pathway for the Ad-industry to rely on anonymous signals within a person’s Chrome browser to serve relevant ads. This model, according to Google, allows content creators to operate without any gatekeeping mechanism and while allowing end-users to access information freely. 

These measures have definitely been designed keeping in mind the privacy of the user, and the effectiveness of them can be analyzed once these measures are implemented and the users are introduced to the cookie-less world. 

The Takeaway 

While Google’s proposal seeks to provide alternatives to support the ad ecosystem instead of simply blocking third-party cookies as done by competing browsers, there are still several challenges to overcome.  The main concern is Google’s already near-monopoly domination of third-party advertising. There is widespread fear that the adoption of Google’s solution would further entrench the company’s monopoly and make it hard for competitors to thrive. The other being that the current ad-supported web business model relies heavily on the existence of third-party cookies. Information dissemination on the web as text, images, videos, and graphics in the form of ads, content, and other formats is taking place on the existing model. How Google’s measures will be adopted by the wider ad industry is still unclear.

Indira Srinivasan

I started my career as a program producer for women and children in AIR FM Radio as a freelancer and progressed for the past 27 years serving academia, industry, and research as faculty, communicator, author, and writer for digital media platforms. I have spent my past 8 years as Science Communicator, writing articles and blogs on social media platforms. I am an ardent book and music lover and fond of singing Indian classical music. My research interests are on ethnography and I love to write on topics including but not limited to climate change, environment, culture, and at present digital monetization.