Cookies track you across the internet. Google wants to phase them out.

The move is meant to offer users greater control over their digital footprints and enhance user privacy, but critics worry it further entrenches Google's dominance.
Image: Google
The Google logo outside its office in Beijing in 2018.Thomas Peter / Reuters

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By Claire Atkinson

Google has announced plans to limit the ability of other companies to track people across the internet and collect information about them, a significant change that has widespread ramifications for online privacy as well as the digital economy.

The company said Tuesday that it plans to phase out the use of digital tools known as tracking cookies, which other companies use to identify people online and learn more about them.

The move is meant to offer users greater control over their digital footprints and enhance user privacy, according to Google. But the move could also provide Google with even greater control over the online advertising market, which the company already dominates.

Google said the change will come to its Chrome web browser and be rolled out over two years. Google did not announce any changes to its own data collection methods.

Google also said that a previously announced change to make third-party cookies more secure and precise in their abilities will be rolled out in February.

Justin Schuh, director of engineering for trust and safety for Google’s Chrome, said the search giant needs time to enact changes because it is working with advertisers and publishers to address the need for cookies to remember sign-ins, embed third-party services such as weather widgets and deliver targeted advertising.

But he did not downplay the significance of Google’s announcement.

“We want to change the way the web works,” he said in an interview.

In August, Google announced an effort to develop new standards for the web, called “Privacy Sandbox,” to provide a way to sustain the online advertising market while limiting the collection of personal user data.

The company has proposed ways to enable websites to perform needed tasks “without tracking you, or knowing who you are, or storing bits of information,” Schuh said. “It’s ways that they can deliver advertising, prevent abuse, but without using these coarse mechanisms that exist today.”

The announcement of such a significant change highlights the extent of Google’s power on the internet — a topic that itself has become the subject of scrutiny by regulators, politicians and activists — and comes as the Department of Justice probes Google’s business practices as part of an antitrust investigation. The Justice Department wants to look at how Google is using its size to exert influence. Its recent acquisition of Fitbit is under a DOJ review process. The Federal Trade Commission is also monitoring tech industry practices more broadly, according to The Wall Street Journal.

But Google has been under pressure from rival tech companies that are offering privacy-enhanced browsers such as Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox.

“Users are demanding greater privacy — including transparency, choice and control over how their data is used — and it’s clear the web ecosystem needs to evolve to meet these increasing demands,” Schuh wrote in a blog post.

The change has major ramifications for the advertising industry. Scott Hagedorn, the chief executive of Omnicom Media Group, North America, welcomed the news.

“I’m sure no one will miss being asked if they accept cookies every time they log on to a website or app,” Hagedorn said. “This will give consumers the best of both worlds — confidence that their privacy is protected without compromising on personalization and relevance across screens.”

But Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, which represents online publishers, and a frequent critic of Google, said he saw Google’s changes as a move to tighten its grip on the internet.

“Make no mistake, Google is trying to express more control over how Google and everyone else can collect and use data,” he said. “I am not surprised Google is making moves framed as privacy. But we will be shocked if those moves in any way negatively impact Google. In short, it’s good to be king.”

Google emphasized that it wants to work with publishers, developers and advertisers on its new system.

“We are looking to build a more trustworthy and sustainable web together, and to do that we need your continued engagement,” Schuh wrote.