Google extends cookie execution deadline until late 2023, will pause FLoC testing in July

by Kate Kaye, Digiday

Google will let the third-party cookie live on for nearly two years longer than planned.

The company has extended its self-imposed deadline to deprecate third-party cookies in its popular Chrome web browser from its original date of January 2022 until late 2023, Google announced today. Even that new deadline appears to be flexible, though. 

Here’s what we know about Google’s stay of execution for the cookie and what may have led to its decision to allow the digital ad ecosystem to use the identifier for a little longer.

The key details

  • Google will phase out third-party cookies in Chrome over a three-month period ending in late 2023. 
  • Google will only do so after testing of cookieless ad methods in development as part of its Privacy Sandbox initiative are fully tested and deployed via APIs in its browser.
  • The firm plans to begin phasing out Chrome support for third-party cookies beginning in late 2022, and it expects the phase-out to last nine-months.
  • All of this appears to be subject to the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority, which has been investigating the competition-related impact of the company’s Privacy Sandbox approach to replacing third-party cookies. 
  • Google will end its current trial of FLoC, its most-controversial Privacy Sandbox proposal for tracking people and targeting ads, on July 13. 

Pressure from the UK

For over a year, the digital advertising industry has fretted over how to operate without third-party cookies. But Google’s decision to extend its deadline seems largely driven by government pressure. 

Google’s entire business is under threat from a variety of antitrust lawsuits and investigations. That includes an antitrust investigation announced this week from the European Commission which, along with some of those suits, addresses Google’s Privacy Sandbox efforts. However, the company’s decision to extend the cookie’s deprecation seems to be in direct response to the CMA. On June 11, the agency said it will evaluate commitments from Google to adjust its much-maligned Privacy Sandbox approach, which has been subject to intense criticism from ad tech firms who say it is not as collaborative as it should be and could facilitate an even greater consolidation of power for Google over ad tech firms, digital ad buyers and ad sellers. 

Google has a big incentive to appease the CMA: If it formally accepts its commitments, the CMA would terminate the Privacy Sandbox investigation it launched in January. The agency said it will consult with interested entities regarding the commitments until July 8 before it decides whether to accept them. And if it does, that does not prevent the agency from reopening the investigation. 

Among Google’s commitments submitted to the CMA, the company said it would not give preference to its own systems and services in development or implementation of Privacy Sandbox methods or use “sensitive information provided by an ad tech provider or publisher to Chrome in a way that distorts competition.”

Even late last year, Google execs were hedging on timing regarding final cookie deprecation in Chrome. And in a company blog post published today to announce the extension, use of the word “could” is also notable. The company states, “Subject to our engagement with the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and in line with the commitments we have offered, Chrome could then phase out third-party cookies over a three-month period, starting in mid-2023 and ending in late 2023.”

So long for now, FLoC

Google also said it will conclude its initial trial of Federated Learning of Cohorts or FLoC, its most well-known and criticized Privacy Sandbox ad method, in the coming weeks. The company told Digiday that the FLoC origin trial will conclude on July 13. 

At this stage, despite some ad tech firms playing around with FLoC ID harvesting, it’s only been supply-side publishers and their ad management firms that were meant to test FLoC in the current origin trial. Advertisers and agencies had been anticipating the ability to test it for ad targeting in Google and other demand-side platforms sometime soon. But now, Google said it will hold off on testing FLoC and other Privacy Sandbox methods in its ads products. The company said it plans to make improvements on FLoC and share more information on future tests in the coming weeks.

It may come as no surprise that Google has hit the pause button on FLoC. Not only have privacy advocates cried foul regarding the potential privacy infringements enabled by the tracking technique, but digital publishers and other browsers have also decided not to enable it. As revealed recently by Digiday, Amazon is also blocking FLoC tracking on most of its properties. 

A sign of more Google transparency?

Some industry executives are already frustrated by Google’sslow-rolling of the third-party cookie’s demise and implementation of FLoC, and the deadline extension may only cause more angst. “I wish they would just do it. Stop just — excuse me — dicking around the whole industry. Let everybody get to a new normal. It’s hard to strategically plan this way,” said one publishing executive.

However, Google’s decision to extend the third-party cookie’s availability in Chrome could signal the company plans to be more transparent in regard to its cookie-killing plans. 

In its commitments to the CMA, Google told the agency that it would publicly disclose timing related to the Privacy Sandbox proposals including timing on origin trials and API availability as well as give notice of a transition period prior to third-party cookie removal and notice before complete third-party cookie eradication.

Google also promised the CMA it would test the effectiveness of individual alternative ad methods including assessing the impact of the removal of third-party cookies. Google said it would do so before triggering a 60-day countdown period promised to the CMA during which time the agency could re-open its investigation or impose measures in the hopes of avoiding competition harms.

Google also promised to “engage with the CMA in an open, constructive and continuous dialogue in relation to the development and implementation of the Privacy Sandbox proposals,” including in relation to design of testing the proposed methods. 

Article originally appeared on Digiday.com

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