UK Watchdog Agrees ‘Oversight’ On Google’s Cookie Removal

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Unhappy advertiser complaint sees CMA taking a key oversight role over Google’s planned removal of third-party cookies (i.e. its Privacy Sandbox project)

The UK competition regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), confirmed it is to take a leading role in Google’s efforts to remove third-party cookies on Chrome.

The CMA announced it has secured commitments from Google to address concerns about the removal of third-party cookies, with the CMA to take up a role in the design and development of Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals to ensure they do not distort competition.

The CMA is now launching a consultation on whether to accept Google’s commitments. If accepted, the commitments would be legally binding.

CMA probe

It comes after the CMA in January 2021 confirmed it had opened an investigation into Google’s proposals to remove third party cookies and other functionalities from its Chrome browser.

Google had unveiled its proposals as far back as May 2019.

Collectively, the changes are called the ‘Privacy Sandbox’ project, and will disable third party cookies on the Chrome browser and Chromium browser engine and replace them with a new set of tools for targeting advertising and other functionality that it says will protect consumers’ privacy to a greater extent.

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

Unhappy advertisers

But advertisers and publishers are unhappy at the move and its potential impact on revenues.

The CMA received complaints from Marketers for an Open Web Limited, a group of newspaper publishers and technology companies, which alleged that, through the proposals, Google was abusing its dominant position.

Third-party cookies are trackers placed on websites to allow advertisers to follow users around the web, for instance displaying a product which the user viewed but did not purchase.

It should be noted that rival browsers such as Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari have already blocked third-party cookies.

But Chrome is the biggest web browser in terms of market share.

Google earlier this year said it had made ‘promising’ progress in its efforts to remove third-party cookies from its Chrome browser

Google commitment

In the announcement of the CMA role, the UK watchdog said that it has “worked closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in reviewing the Privacy Sandbox proposals and will continue to work closely with the ICO to assess the effectiveness of alternatives to third party cookies being developed under the proposals.”

“The emergence of tech giants such as Google has presented competition authorities around the world with new challenges that require a new approach,” said Andrea Coscelli, chief executive at the CMA.

“That’s why the CMA is taking a leading role in setting out how we can work with the most powerful tech firms to shape their behaviour and protect competition to the benefit of consumers,” 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,” she concluded.

Google has made a number of pledges to the CMA, which include:

  • A commitment to develop and implement the proposals in a way that avoids distortions to competition and the imposition of unfair terms on Chrome users. This includes a commitment to involve the CMA and the ICO in the development of the Proposals to ensure this objective is met.
  • Increased transparency from Google on how and when the proposals will be taken forward and on what basis they will be assessed. This includes a commitment to publicly disclose the results of tests of the effectiveness of alternative technologies.
  • Substantial limits on how Google will use and combine individual user data for the purposes of digital advertising after the removal of third-party cookies.
  • A commitment that Google will not discriminate against its rivals in favour of its own advertising and ad-tech businesses when designing or operating the alternatives to third-party cookies.
  • A standstill period of at least 60 days before Google proceeds with the removal of third party cookies giving the CMA the opportunity, if any outstanding concerns cannot be resolved with Google, to reopen its investigation and, if necessary, impose any interim measures necessary to avoid harm to competition.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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