The Cookie Policy Crumbles: The Friction Between Privacy and Personalization

In May, Google promised to let users limit cookies. 

A few weeks ago, Google said in a blog post that they are not opening up the chance for users to control how cookies are collected as fully as previously expected.

Which one is it? Are they making a reasonable effort to increase consumers’ control over their privacy online or are they doing the bare minimum to preserve their own ad business?

Google relied upon the “lesser of two evils” argument for not blocking cookies any further. According to Google, the alternative to using cookies to personalize ads is an approach called fingerprinting. Fingerprinting aggregates user behaviors to create a unique user profile that the user cannot control. This profile essentially does the same thing as website cookies, but it’s even worse for user privacy.

Consumers face a steep uphill claim as they seek to control how their personal information is used. Google is the largest online advertiser, controlling 31.1% of worldwide ad spend. Of course it is in Google’s interest to preserve their access to cookies– they make most of their revenue from personalized advertising. They know that consumers value these tailored experiences. Plus, as consumers, we still don’t really understand the privacy sacrifices we make for the personalized experience we’ve grown used to.

The privacy debate is tricky– cookies aren’t evil, they really do help personalize the online experience for the user, including ads and other types of content (e.g., YouTube’s recommended videos, Amazon’s “other users bought,” etc). But this personalized environment can only happen when people allow their data to be collected and aggregated. We’ve watched companies like Facebook walk the line between offering this positive user experience and abusing our privacy. This dividing line exists though, and users value their privacy more than many companies thought.

Companies will be successful by staying honest with users about what’s being done with their information. Being more responsible with users’ data will lead to a higher ROI because as privacy laws get more strict (we’re looking at you, California Consumer Privacy Act), eventually all businesses will have to adapt to new consumer privacy standards. The ones that will come out on top will be the ones who adapt earlier rather than later, and focus on building trust and transparency now.