UK Watchdog Accepts Google’s Revised Browser Cookie Pledge

CMA says it will keep “close eye” on Google after it accepted the firm’s revised offer concerning the banning of third-party cookies

The UK competition regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), has accepted Google revised offer over its efforts to remove third-party tracking cookies on the Chrome browser.

It was back in November last year when Google 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.

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.

CMA agreement

Now the CMA has announced that it has accepted a revised offer from Google of commitments relating to its proposed removal of third-party cookies from the Chrome browser.

The CMA said the final commitments it has accepted are a result of an in-depth investigation and extensive engagement with Google and market participants, including 2 formal public consultations.

They address the CMA’s competition concerns and Google has also said that the commitments will be rolled out globally.

The CMA is working closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to oversee the development of the proposals, so that they protect privacy without unduly restricting competition and harming consumers.

“Our intervention in this case demonstrates our commitment to protecting competition in digital markets and our global role in shaping the behaviour of world-leading tech firms,” said Andrea Coscelli, the CMA’s chief executive.

“The commitments we have obtained from Google will promote competition, help to protect the ability of online publishers to raise money through advertising and safeguard users’ privacy,” said Coscelli.

“While this is an important step, we are under no illusions that our work is done,” said Coscelli. “We now move into a new phase where we will keep a close eye on Google as it continues to develop these proposals.”

“We will engage with all market participants in this process, in order to ensure that Google is taking account of concerns and suggestions raised,” Coscelli concluded.

The commitments from Google include:

  • Involvement of the CMA and the ICO in the development and testing of the Privacy Sandbox proposals, to ensure they achieve effective outcomes for consumers to protect both competition and privacy;
  • Google will engage in a more transparent process than initially proposed, including engagement with third parties and publishing test results, with the option for the CMA to require Google to address issues raised by the CMA or third parties;
  • Google will not remove third-party cookies until the CMA is satisfied that its competition concerns have been addressed. If the CMA is not satisfied that its competition concerns have been addressed, the CMA may take further action (i.e. re-open its investigation, impose interim measures or proceed to a decision);
  • Commitments to restrict the sharing of data within its ecosystem to ensure that it doesn’t gain an advantage over competitors when third-party cookies are removed; and commitments to not self-preference its advertising services;
  • A Monitoring Trustee will be appointed to work alongside the CMA to ensure the commitments are monitored effectively and Google complies with its obligations. This appointment is expected to be made shortly.

It has been a busy period for Google’s efforts here.

Last month Google dropped the system known as FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) it was building to replace advertising cookies in the Chrome browser.

Meta clash

Google’s proactive attitude to work alongside and co-operate with the UK’s CMA in this area stands in marked contrast to the attitude of Meta and Facebook.

Last week the CMA fined Meta a second time, as Facebook again failed to inform the CMA about ‘material changes’ to its Giphy purchase.

The CMA last November, ordered Facebook to sell-off Giphy after it decided the remedies offered by the American company did not answer its concerns.

In December 2021 Meta appealed against the decision, and said the evidence does not support the CMA finding that the deal is a threat to its rivals or could impact competition in display advertising.

Meta has previously said the British competition regulator had no authority to intervene on the matter, as Giphy was “a US company with commercial activities strictly limited to the US.”