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Privacy Insider: September 28, 2021

  • by Angelique Carson
  • last updated September 29, 2021
  • 6 min read
Privacy Insider: September 28, 2021

Cookies. They're the lifeblood of many businesses. And they're undergoing a massive shift.

Well, that's at least true for the third-party kind. The kind that comes from an advertiser with a relationship to the site a user's visiting, deployed to track that user around the web for insights on their behaviors. 

Thanks partly to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, users and regulators have become increasingly concerned about the data such cookies were collecting. How did Facebook know which users were most likely to own guns or how they voted in the most recent election? These kinds of revelations put a new spotlight on tracking cookies.

It's a hugely important topic. There are entire economies built on ad tracking and a lot of profit at stake. 

What's not clear is what we should do about it. Because online content has billed itself as "free," it feels uncomfortable to start talking about paying every time I want to Google something, you know? But if third-party cookies disappear, who picks up the tab?

See, the content was never actually "free." It's just that platforms have used ad-sales profits to fuel their engines. The content all of us as consumers can access for "free,"  written by journalists, lawyers, artists and academics, is paid (mainly) via the money sites make from displaying content users want to see, yes. Meaning: The money they make from advertisers desperate to get on the same page as that excellent content because they've indicated an interest in that topic. And that happens via tracking.

If advertisers walk because cookies disappear, who then pays for us to obsessively absorb information? If ad sales don't pay for the work we all ingest, where does that money come from?  

There are a few ideas at play. 

There's the Brave model. If you haven't heard of it, Brave is a browser that sells itself on user privacy. It doesn't support targeted ads on its platform. Instead, it scrubs websites' ads and then fills the space with ads it sells in-house. Instead of users seeing personalized ads, the entire user base sees ads based on an "anonymous aggregate of the browser's user base," as Computerworld reports

Facebook's recent experiment is similar to Brave's model. It's looking at ways to target users with ads without using personal data. Instead, users with common interests would be lumped together as a "group" of potential buyers who might be interested in a product, as The New York Times reports

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Last year, Apple deployed a pop-up window to allow users to opt out of being tracked by third parties for advertising purposes. More than 80% used it, and that had an impact on small businesses, especially. I chuckle as I write this, but even Facebook stated that it was "Speaking up for small businesses" in full-page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. "Our studies show, without personalized ads powered by their own data, small businesses could see a cut of over 60% of website sales from ads," Facebook said. 

In an article for WIRED called, "Nice Try, Facebook. iOS Changes Aren't Bad for Small Businesses," Dipayan Ghosh said Apple's changes "hurt Facebook and its affiliated data brokers and ad networks — not the main-street small businesses evoked by Facebook's newspaper ads." 

Some say it doesn't matter if Big Tech can't make advertising dollars off third-party cookies because companies like Google, Apple and Facebook own most user data already. They could run on those insights alone. And that's where some of the antitrust complaints lodged against the companies come in. To oversimplify a complicated topic. 

Absent a browser-based solution, there could be ramifications to users and consumers other than less-relevant ads popping up on their iPhones or Androids. Some businesses may have to raise prices to make up for ad revenue loss. Or, websites could turn to a subscription-only model. 

Though some of the products and services claim their way is the best path forward for protecting consumer privacy, we've yet to agree on how to do that without devastating advertisers. 

That's what Google's Privacy Sandbox ostensibly will do. But things are moving slowly. Google had initially sought to phase out third-party cookies by the end of 2022 but has since delayed to 2023. It told advertisers it would come up with an alternative plan before it ditched third-party cookies altogether, and so far, no one's come up with it. 

"While there's considerable progress with this initiative, it's become clear that more time is needed across the ecosystem to get this right," Google said in its June update. 

For now, we'll have to let companies fumble with some experiments. But businesses have reason to be concerned about how much that'll cost them until an anxious industry finds its way before regulators find it for them. 

Hey, if you missed our web conference last week on U.S. state privacy laws, it was a good one! See the link above for access. 

Enjoy reading, and I'll see you next week!


If cookies go away, who pays for the internet? 

Curious about privacy? Find out how Osano automates compliance & saves you time! Learn more

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About The Author · Angelique Carson

Angelique Carson is the Director of Content at Osano, a B-corp privacy platform that makes compliance with privacy laws easy for companies of all sizes. She is a professional writer and editor who has worked in journalism and publishing for more than ten years. Previously Angelique was an editor at the International Association of Privacy Professionals and the host of The Privacy Advisor Podcast. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her puppy Miles.