UK CMA investigates Google’s proposal to replace third-party cookies

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On Jan. 8, the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority launched an investigation into whether Google’s proposals for replacing third-party cookies — through an effort Google has branded Privacy Sandbox — “could cause advertising spend to become even more concentrated on Google’s ecosystem at the expense of its competitors,” according to a CMA announcement about the investigation.

Under pressure from governments and consumers over data privacy infringement concerns, Google a year ago said it will disable third-party cookies by 2022 in its Chrome browser, which is used by more than 60% of the world’s web users. The move will effectively disable a primary way that ads are targeted and content is personalized on publishers’ sites. By extension, it could compromise publishers’ abilities to make money from online advertising and push people, their data and — along with them — ad dollars further within the walls of Google’s already dominant properties, according to ad tech and publishing executives.

Google’s decision to disable the third-party cookie has been referenced as examples of anti-competitive behavior in recent antitrust suits against the company, too. A multi-state antitrust suit filed in December claimed Google uses its “massive information advantage strategically to harm any publisher who refuses to use its intermediaries.” Another recent antitrust suit filed on behalf of publishers claimed that Google’s cookie decision was “exclusionary.”

Through its Privacy Sandbox initiative, Google has proposed an evolving collection of ad targeting and measurement methods for replacing third-party cookies. Despite the seemingly collaborative setting, Google’s Privacy Sandbox is under increasing scrutiny throughout the digital media industry and now from the U.K. government because Privacy Sandbox is under Google’s control.

Google’s approach could favor its browser business, say critics. Ad tech firms are participating in the Google sandbox effort. But some, including Criteo, are leery of an approach they say has been too centered around the browser.Trust in Google is at the core of most complaints about the Privacy Sandbox process. Any method that could give Google even more control over the ad process has advertisers, publishers and ad tech firms raising eyebrows.

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