UK competition regulator gets a say in Google plan to remove cookies

The logo of Google Chrome shown on a smartphone.

Thomas Trutschel | Photothek via Getty Images

LONDON — Britain’s competition regulator will have a say in Google’s plan to remove third-party browser cookies that track people online.

The Competition and Markets Authority said Friday that it had secured commitments from Google to address concerns about the proposal. The CMA is worried that the plans will harm newspapers and other businesses that rely on personalized ads.

Web cookies are small pieces of code that websites deliver to a visitor’s browser. They can be used to track online activity, such as items added to a shopping basket. Third-party cookies are often added by advertisers to serve people with personalized ads.

Google plans to scrap third-party cookies on its Chrome browser and replace them with an alternative. The company launched an initiative called “Privacy Sandbox” last year, in a bid to address privacy concerns with cookies. The CMA launched a formal probe into the changes in January.

Google committed to involve the CMA and the Information Commissioner’s Office, the U.K.’s privacy watchdog, in the development of its Privacy Sandbox proposals. The company promised to publicly disclose results of any tests of the effectiveness of alternatives, and said it wouldn’t give preferential treatment to Google’s advertising products or sites.

“If accepted, the commitments we have obtained from Google become legally binding, promoting competition in digital markets, helping to protect the ability of online publishers to raise money through advertising and safeguarding users’ privacy,” Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said in a statement.

The CMA said it would consult with “interested third parties” before deciding whether to accept Google’s commitments. If accepted, the watchdog would drop its enforcement case and engage with Google on the details of its proposals.

“We appreciate the CMA’s thoughtful approach throughout the review and their engagement with the difficult trade-offs that this process inevitably involves,” Oliver Bethell, Google’s director of legal, said in a blog post.

“We also welcome feedback from the public consultation and will continue to engage with the CMA and with the industry on this important topic” Bethell added. “We understand that our plans will be scrutinized, so we’ll also continue to engage with other regulators, industry partners and privacy experts as well.”

The move is the latest sign of the CMA’s growing role in scrutinizing major U.S. tech firms — which are facing antitrust probes around the world — after Brexit. The watchdog has been tasked by the government with setting up a new Digital Markets Unit to police competition in the U.K.’s digital market.

Last week, the U.K. and European Union launched two separate competition probes into Facebook on the same day. Meanwhile, Apple is also facing antitrust investigations in both Britain and Europe.

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