Tech giant Google said on Friday it would keep working with UK competition regulator the Competition and Markets Authority to remove browser cookies from its platform that provide customer information to advertisers and other third parties.
The move is the latest sign of the CMA expanding its role post-Brexit in scrutinising the largest US tech firms, which are currently facing similar scrutiny amid antitrust probes from all over the world. Last week alone, the UK and European Union launched two separate Facebook probes, while Apple is also firmly in the sights of regulators in what are now two separate jurisdictions post Brexit.
Web cookies — small bits of code that web sites imprint on a user’s browser — can be used to track online activity, while third-party cookies are often added by advertisers to provide increasingly personalised ads. Google announced in January that it would scrap support for third-party cookies in Chrome, launching an initiative titled “Privacy Sandbox” to address ongoing concerns amongst the public about the use of data. The CMA then announced that it would launch its own probe into Google’s proposed changes.
Google has said all along that it wants to address any of the CMA’s lingering concerns, along with those of the Information Commissioner, the UK privacy watchdog, in the development of Privacy Sandbox. It has also promised to publicly disclose the results of trials into the effectiveness of alternatives to cookies.
One of the sticking points is over tailored browsing, where companies have expressed their misgivings about the loss of cookies in the world’s largest browser harming their ability to collect worthwhile information to use for personalising ads — making them ironically even more dependent on Google’s user databases and platforms.
The CMA said it would consult with third parties before making a decision on Google’s commitments. If accepted, the regulator would then drop its enforcement case and engage with Google more broadly on the issue. “If accepted, the commitments we have obtained from Google will promote competition in digital markets, helping to protect the ability of online publishers to raise money through advertising and safeguarding users’ privacy,” CMA Chief Executive Andrea Coscelli said last Friday in a statement.
The US and EU have been at the forefront of investigating tech giants in recent years, with the EU in particular issuing huge fines to Apple and Google for what it said was highly anti-competitive behaviour at the end of last year.
The CMA has also signalled its intention to become more hands-on in its involvement with beg tech and the challenges it faces post Brexit, stating in March in its annual plan that it is “committed to playing a bigger role internationally to promote competition and protect consumers”.
This led to the creation in April of the Digital Markets Unit to police the UK’s digital markets. This new British unit is seen as a test of its ongoing commitment post Brexit, and one of its first tasks will be to establish updated codes of conduct for Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
Vijay Raghavan, a senior analyst at research firm Forrester in the US, said the CMA’s increased actions against the largest tech companies fits into a global theme of seeking far greater accountability. “The reach and power that these tech companies have is getting more scrutiny. The amount of data they’re collecting on all of us needs to be understood better,” Raghavan said. “Here in the States, there was a lot of scrutiny with the big tech companies during the election and all of that.”