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The Cookies Arms Race

Blog. When Apple blocked by default all third party cookies in its Safari-browser, Facebook and others made a circumvention and used a first party cookie to track us. Apple is back with an answer to that. The ad tech industry is fighting to keep their surveillance tool number 1, cookies, alive, while both some ethical privacy companies and a growing number of users are trying to get rid of them. A report from Cookiebot shows that the European public sector, who does not even need ads, has a long way to go.

In 2017, Apple released Safari 11 which effectively blocked all third party cookies (also called marketing cookies), relieving consumers of the burden of having to download an adblocker to stopped the tracking. Apple used so-called Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP2.0).  This really worried the ad tech industry who said that it would hurt the user experience. While many privacy and consumer organisations cheered.

According to an in-dept report on cookie tracking from Cookiebot, “Facebook regrouped. For years, the social media giant had been tracking web users across millions of websites using the persistent third party cookie “fr”, which was now wiped after 24 hours by default in Safari. Faced with a future in which Facebook would lose track of millions of Safari users, it developed an elegant countermeasure.In October 2018, Facebook introduced a new 1st party cookie named “_fbp”. Being a 1st party cookie, “_fbp” is immune to Safari’s new tracking prevention.”

But Facebook was not alone. According to Digiday, a wave of anxiety among ad tech vendors that rely on third-party cookie tracking and revenues were affected, and “gradually companies adapted and a range of workarounds were created to help circumvent the issues. One such workaround was to store third-party cookies as first party cookies”.

This has started a cookies arms race, and recently Apple launched ITP2.1 to counter the workarounds. This reduces the usefulness of the solutions by targeting the accessibility and longevity of first party cookies, writes Digiday.

The stange thing here is that the ad tech industry is not listening to their customers. Why not accept those using Safari or ablock-extensions in their browsers, when those users don’t want to be tracked by cookies? The majority will still not do anything to stop the tracking, and if more and more start doing that, may be the ad tech industry needs to disrupt itself and find new business models where they listen to their users.

The public sector in Europe should start listening to their users. According to the Cookiebot-report the European public, 89% of all official government websites use third party ad tracking, and 82% of official EU government websites are harbouring Google marketing trackers. So, the EU who is fighting big tech on antitrust, is feeding the same companies with data on their citizens. Or as the CEO of Cookiebot Daniel Johannsen states:

“Although the governments presumably do ot control or benefit from the documented data collection, they still allow the safety and privacy of their citizens to be compromised within the confines of their digital domains – in violation of the laws that they have themselves put in place.”