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Competition authority to ensure Google’s changes to Chrome ads will not harm rivals

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The UK's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has said it has secured commitments from Google that its new privacy sandbox proposals will not favour its in-house advertising platform over rival firms.

Google’s plan is to ditch third-party cookies in its Chrome web browser in favour of its own “privacy sandbox”. Traditional third-party cookies allow advertisers to track individuals across the websites they visit to serve them personalised ads outside of Google’s ecosystem.

The new system will split users into cohorts, and rather than a person’s browser history being sent to a central location, their own computer will figure out what they like and assign them to a group with similar interests.

Online ads will still be personalised under the system, but Google claims it will afford users greater privacy.

With Chrome capturing around 65 per cent of the global browser market, the CMA has expressed concern that the sandbox will create a walled garden of sorts that will “cause advertising spend to become even more concentrated on Google’s ecosystem at the expense of its competitors”.

Now it has said it will take up a role in the design and development of the sandbox proposals to ensure they do not distort competition. It is also launching a consultation on whether to accept Google’s commitments, which, if accepted, would be legally binding.

The commitments include a mandate for increased transparency from Google on how and when the proposals will be taken forward, substantial limits on how it will use and combine individual user data and a promise that it will not discriminate against its rivals in favour of its own advertising.

The offer of commitments is a result of enforcement action that the CMA launched against Google in January 2021, when a number of businesses raised concerns about the company’s plans to phase out third-party cookies and other functionalities in its Chrome browser.

The CMA was concerned that, without regulatory oversight and scrutiny, Google’s alternatives could be developed and implemented in ways that impede competition in digital advertising markets.

Andrea Coscelli, the CMA’s chief executive, said: “The emergence of tech giants such as Google has presented competition authorities around the world with new challenges that require a new approach.

“That’s why the CMA is taking a leading role in setting out how we can work with the most powerful tech firms to shape their behaviour and protect competition to the benefit of consumers.

“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.”

The consultation on the CMA’s proposals will close on 8 July 2021 after which it will make a final decision on whether to accept the commitments offered.

“Today we are offering a set of commitments — the result of many hours of discussions with the CMA and more generally with the broader web community — about how we’ll design and implement the Privacy Sandbox proposals and treat user data in Google’s systems in the years ahead,” Google’s legal director Oliver Bethell said in a blog post.

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