5 reasons third-party cookies are on their way out

Is there life without third-party cookies? (Part 2 of 3)
You hate third-party cookies, I know you do — even if you don’t know what they are. Remember the time you spent 10 seconds checking out a link for a hotel near your brother-in-law in Albuquerque and then for the next ten weeks you were shown ads all around the Web for “Hotels in Albuquerque”?  That’s the result of third-party cookies, tracking virtually everything you do online. There might be a good use for such cookies, when used responsibly. But most users are “creeped out” by the fact that advertisers are building a profile of what sites they visit across the Web. That’s why there are a number of efforts under way to clean out the cookie jar.

Empty cookie jar
Credit: PerpetualKid.com

Here are five reasons that the quantity of third-party cookies might be dramatically reduced, sooner rather than later:

  1. Mobile devices don’t give very good support to third-party cookies. True, some mobile browsers support third-party cookies, but it’s inconsistent, and iOS devices (iPhones, iPads) block them by default. Predominantly, we’re all spending more time browsing sites on our tablets and smart phones, where the only Big Brother that’s watching is our cellular carrier (and whatever government agencies they choose to share with). Advertisers and their partner companies are out of luck.
  2. Premium publishers have a love-hate relationship with third-party cookies and the hate is winning. In order to get the best rates on advertising, publishers need to provide their own unique user data — called “first-party” data. However, the value of this is watered down by the third-party data from companies that have placed their tracking cookies in your browser. For example, suppose you are surfing Vogue.com right this moment: If an advertiser already knows via third-party cookies that you’re a female under 35, then they don’t need Vogue.com to tell them that. So, Vogue can’t charge a premium for telling them. However, if Vogue knows you like Paleo diet recipes and the third-party data providers don’t know that, then Vogue has something to offer advertisers at a premium. Bottom line: publishers would make more money if advertisers moved to relying on first-party data instead of third-party data. That means that some powerful publishers are not likely to stand in the way of efforts to rid the world of third-party data gathering and they might even add their weight to those efforts.
  3. Do-Not-Track could become a law.  “Do Not Track” is a browser setting that is your opportunity, in Firefox and other major browsers, to say that you want behavioral tracking to stop. However, even when you turn this setting on, companies are not required by law to comply with it. The FTC initially said that a law might not be needed, hoping that the industry would exhibit voluntary compliance. But more than a year later, few tracking companies have embraced the policy (shocker!). California looks poised to take the first step in referencing Do Not Track in the legal code: merely requiring Web publishers to place a statement on their site disclosing whether they respect it. The next step in legislation would obviously be requiring compliance outright, perhaps at a Federal level. While that may not seem imminent, what starts in California often has a way of building momentum.
  4. The Cookie Clearing House is soon gonna be kickin’ butt and takin’ names. The only thing holding back Mozilla from making Do Not Track a default setting in Firefox has been the challenge of false positives, wherein a site has legitimate reasons for having a third-party cookie (such as using an outside vendor to serve up images and videos faster than they could ever do on their own). So, the Firefox folks are throwing their weight behind Stanford University’s new Cookie Clearing House, which supports black-lists and allow-lists for third-party cookies. These lists would allow only the appropriate, justifiable exceptions to be let through among the hosts of third party cookies attempting to make a home in your browser. After these lists are well established, Firefox will make Do Not Track the default in new versions of the Web browser, and IE and Safari will likely follow suit. It may take a couple of years for all of this to play out, but it will be huge: you’ll be indicating that you want most third-party cookies blocked, without even realizing you are doing so.
  5. Anti-virus and ad-blocking programs stand ready. When the Cookie Clearing House is ready to go, it’s likely that whatever Internet security and privacy apps you have already installed — whether Norton Internet Security, AdBlock Plus, Ghostery, or a pop-up ad blocker like AdAware — will pick up the lists and use them to block third-party cookies, in case your browser doesn’t. You and the other tens of millions of users who utilize such apps will have just one more tool working against third-party data gathering.

Putting the five forces above together, I wouldn’t bank on third-party cookies having nearly as big a share of total Internet traffic by 2016 as they do today. The industry has that long to figure out what else it will do to target ads to us! I have at least one idea how that will work, which I’ll explain in the next post.

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