Google Increases Concessions, Amid CMA Oversight Of Cookie Removal

The UK’s competition regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), continues its oversight role of Google’s efforts to remove third-party tracking cookies on Chrome.

Google has now made fresh concessions to restrict its use of data from its Chrome browser, in order to address CMA concerns about its efforts to ban third-party cookies that advertisers use to track consumers.

Google had unveiled its proposals as far back as May 2019, in response to what it said was users wanting more privacy when they are browsing the web, including not being tracked across websites.

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Privacy Sandbox

Collectively, Google’s changes are called the ‘Privacy Sandbox’ project, and will disable third party cookies on the Chrome browser and Chromium browser engine.

Google will instead replace these tracking cookies with a new set of tools for targetted advertising and other functionality that the search engine giant says will protect consumers’ privacy to a greater extent.

Essentially, Google is aiming to place people’s web browsing history on their personal devices, rather than on the servers of advertisers.

The CMA in January 2021 opened an investigation into Google’s proposals to remove these third party cookies, and then in June, Google agreed to the CMA’s oversight of the process, after complaints from unhappy advertisers.

The CMA thus took up the role in the design and development of Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals to ensure they do not impede competition in digital advertising.

And Google agreed to not implement its plan without the CMA’s sign-off, and would apply the approved plan around the world.

‘Improved commitments’

Now on Friday the CMA announced that it “has secured improved commitments from Google on its proposals to remove third party cookies and other functionalities from its Chrome browser.”

The CMA said it has heard from over 40 third parties who agreed with the CMA’s competition concerns but suggested that the commitments should be strengthened in a number of areas.

Areas of concerns were Google’s transparency and engagement with the industry.

There was also concern about improving the provisions on Google self-preferencing its advertising products and services and bolstering the monitoring of Google’s compliance.

To address these points Google has now offered to:

  • ensure that the CMA’s role and the ongoing CMA process are mentioned in Google’s key public announcements;
  • instruct its staff not to make claims to customers which contradict the commitments;
  • report regularly to the CMA on how Google has taken account of third party views;
  • address concerns about Google removing functionality or information before the full Privacy Sandbox changes, including by delaying enforcement of its Privacy Budget proposal, and offering commitments around the introduction of measures to reduce access to IP addresses;
  • clarify the internal limits on the data that Google can use;
  • provide greater certainty to third parties developing alternative technologies;
  • improve the provisions on reporting and compliance, including by appointing a CMA-approved monitoring trustee; and
  • provide for a longer duration of 6 years from the date of any decision to accept Google’s modified commitments.

The CMA’s provisional view is that Google’s revised offer addresses the CMA’s competition concerns, so the CMA is now consulting on these modifications.

“We have always been clear that Google’s efforts to protect user’s privacy cannot come at the cost of reduced competition,” noted CMA chief executive Andrea Coscelli.

“We welcome Google’s co-operation and are grateful to all the interested parties who engaged with us during the consultation,” said Coscelli. “If accepted, the commitments we have obtained from Google become legally binding, promoting competition in digital markets, helping to protect the ability of online publishers to raise money through advertising and safeguarding users’ privacy.”

The CMA will now consult on these new commitments until17 December 2021, and if the commitments are accepted, this would result in the closure of the CMA’s investigation, and lead to the next phase of this oversight work for the CMA.

Industry reaction

Google engagement with the UK’s CMA has been welcomed by industry observers.

“Google’s renewed commitment to the CMA is an encouraging development,” noted Tom Bianchi, EMEA CMO, at the software-as-a-service provider Acquia.

“By reaffirming its promise to phase out third-party cookies, while making concessions to those who have concerns about the impact of the plans on competition, Google has demonstrated a dedication to regaining consumer trust and a willingness to do so in a fair and transparent way,” said Bianchi.

“In today’s digital age, consumer demand for privacy has never been stronger,” said Bianchi. “Only 58 percent of UK consumers trust brands to handle their personal data, which places the onus on large corporations, such as Google, to steer a course away from the opaque data usage which has eroded consumer trust, towards more consent-driven, personalised engagement, with privacy at its core.”

“Ahead of the final phasing out of third-party cookies, Google will need to ensure that it can deliver full transparency and demonstrate it is prepared to cooperate with its competitors as well as the CMA,” said Bianchi.

“The industry will undoubtedly welcome Google’s softened approach, but the responsibility still lies with organisations to adopt their own first-party data strategies that offer the transparency and control that consumers will need for brands to win back their trust,” Bianchi concluded.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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