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UK investigating Google Chrome privacy plan

Credit: Google

The UK's competition authority is investigating Google's plan to have Chrome block third-party cookies, and replace them with a system whose benefits to the company may be anticompetitive.

Full blocking of third-party cookies came to Apple's Safari browser in early 2019, but Google's similar plan for Chrome has now prompted an investigation by the UK's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

"Google's Privacy Sandbox proposals will potentially have a very significant impact on publishers like newspapers, and the digital advertising market," said Andrea Coscelli, CEO of the CMA, in a statement. "But there are also privacy concerns to consider, which is why we will continue to work with the [Information Commissioner's Office] as we progress this investigation, while also engaging directly with Google and other market participants about our concerns."

The CMA reports that it has had an unspecified number of complaints about Google's plans. It cites only one example, however, which was from the Marketers for an Open Web (MOW), a coalition of newspaper firms and technology companies.

MOW wrote to the CMA in November 2020, claiming that Google's move is not concerned with privacy, only with commerce. "If Google releases this technology, they will effectively own the means by which media companies, advertisers and technology businesses reach their consumers and that change will be irreversible," James Rosewell, Director of MOW, wrote.

Google expects to implement its plan by 2022, and as part of it, advertisers will receive less data than at present.

"Google's announced changes — known collectively as the Privacy Sandbox' project — would disable third party cookies on the Chrome browser and Chromium browser engine," continues the CMA statement, "and replace them with a new set of tools for targeting advertising and other functionality that they say will protect consumers' privacy to a greater extent."

The investigation has begun with what the CMA describes as "information gathering, including issue of formal or informal information requests." The investigation is currently expected to take until July 2021 to complete.

Separately, the US Department of Justice has been investigating whether Chrome should be split off from Google. One reason is to do with how allegedly the company is able to use the popularity of its search engine to benefit advertising in Chrome.