Pattern Matching

Google’s ‘Privacy-First Web’ Is Really a Google-First Web

Why the search giant can afford to kill the cookie

Will Oremus
Published in
6 min readMar 6, 2021
Photo Illustration: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

For two decades, the cookie has been an emblem of the online advertising model that powers much of the open web — and the privacy invasions that come with it. Now, the cookie as we know it is dying.

Online advertising will live on, of course, and so will privacy invasions. But the changes taking shape today will nonetheless alter how we navigate the web in the future — and define which companies dominate it.

The Pattern

The internet’s giants are building its post-cookie future.

Google has been planning for a while now to phase out third-party tracking cookies in its Chrome browser, deprecating those bits of code that track and tattle on your browsing history for the sake of targeted advertising. It promised in January 2020 that they’d be gone by 2022. And we’ve known since 2019 that it was working on less-intrusive ways to target ads.

This week, Google committed not to build or use any systems that track individual people across the web. That means Google won’t support some of the nascent efforts by other ad-tech players to replace cookies with technologies that track an individual’s online identity in other ways, such as by matching email addresses across databases. “If digital advertising doesn’t evolve to address the growing concerns people have about their privacy and how their personal identity is being used, we risk the future of the free and open web,” Google’s David Temkin wrote in a blog post.

That’s a substantial privacy commitment for a company whose business is built on targeted advertising, and Google deserves credit for it. But, as some analysts were quick to point out, Google isn’t just doing this out of the not-evilness of its heart.

It’s responding in part to pressure from several sides: regulators, privacy advocates, consumers, and especially rivals. Apple and Mozilla, whose revenue models aren’t driven by ad targeting, already block third-party cookies by default in their respective browsers, Safari and Firefox. While Google Chrome remains the world’s most popular browser by a wide margin