Are Web Tracker Cookies Becoming Outdated?

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Despite the sweet name, cookies are widely despised by a lot of the online community. However, they weren’t always designed to track your internet usage, in fact their original purpose was quite different.

The cookie was first developed by Lou Montulli, he envisaged the technology back in 1994 as a way for people to save their work when leaving and returning to a particular website. What was not originally planned was the potential for the cookie to be used with drastic effect in marketing. Essentially cookies developed into a tool for businesses, marketers, and advertisers, to follow a person’s behaviour across multiple websites. In doing so, they could tailor their ads specifically towards certain people.

The data cookies are able to collect can be used to build a profile of a person. Sometimes this data can be very sensitive and people wouldn’t necessarily or knowingly want to share it. Cookies track a person’s browsing history and create an idea about who you are and what you like. These data points are exactly what advertisers are looking for. They find the people who are interested in what they are selling and then deliver targeted advertisements to them. Alongside this, the data collected can potentially be shared with multiple organisations, all without you realising. Understandably this practice has caused huge uproar amongst the public who are concerned about the use of their data and the invasion of their privacy.

Online nowadays, cookies are everywhere. However it does look like their dominance is starting to break a little bit. Two of the biggest signs of this come from Mozilla and Apple. Back in 2019, Mozilla made the announcement that its Firefox browser, one of the most used browsers in the world, would prevent third party cookies from activating as its default setting. Firefox released a blog post at the time, detailing its thoughts around the subject.

In the blog post Firefox wrote, ‘Pervasive tracking is too opaque and potential privacy harms are never felt immediately. The general argument from tech companies is that consumers can always decide to dive into their browser settings and modify the defaults. The reality is that most people will never do that. Yet, we know that people are broadly opposed to the status quo of pervasive cross-site tracking and data collection, particularly when they learn the details on how tracking actually works.’

In a similar move, Apple began to move away from Cookies as well. In 2020 they released an update to Safari, its default web browser, that blocks cookies and stops advertisers from looking at your online movements. On this subject the engineer behind the Safari update, John Wilander, tweeted his thoughts, ‘This update takes several important steps to fight cross-site tracking and make it more safe to browse the web. First of all, it paves the way. We will report on our experiences of full third-party cookie blocking to the privacy groups in W3C to help other browsers take the leap.’

There are signs of another big tech company, Google, also moving in this direction, however they are dragging their feet. Initially Google announced that they would block third-party cookies in its Chrome browser by 2022 however this has now fallen to the later date of 2023. This might not come as a complete surprise as Google is the market leader in the online advertising space and a considerable amount of its revenue comes from this sector. But that is not to say they won’t follow the emerging trend, especially if it looks like competitors will gain an edge on them with consumers if they don’t improve their stance on cookies.

Despite these positive steps, there is still some way to go. Cookies still proliferate the internet and despite the ability to block them, they are still an extremely valuable asset for advertisers and marketers. Alongside this, there is some concern around the technologies that could be used to replace cookies. There are entire industries based around the information that people gain from cookies, as a result of this it should be expected that someone will try to create more sophisticated methods of internet tracking. This is a particular concern for online privacy advocates around the world.

The phasing out of cookies can definitely be seen as a step in the right direction. Larger tech companies making updates to protect against third party cookies shows there is support for protecting people’s privacy online. It remains to be seen how the space will be filled that cookies will eventually leave behind.