CMA consults on commitments relating to Google’s planned removal of third-party cookies

June 13, 2021

The CMA has secured commitments from Google to address concerns about its proposal to remove third-party cookies on Chrome. The CMA has also announced that it is going to take up a role in the design and development of Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals. The aim is to ensure that they do not distort competition. 

It is now launching a consultation on whether to accept Google’s commitments. If accepted, the commitments would be legally binding. The CMA is particularly interested to hear any views on whether the proposed commitments are sufficient to address the CMA’s competition concerns regarding:

  • unequal access to the functionality associated with user tracking;
  • self-preferencing Google’s own ad tech providers and owned and operated ad inventory; and
  • imposition of unfair terms on Chrome’s web users.

The CMA has worked closely with the ICO in reviewing the Privacy Sandbox proposals and will continue to work closely with the ICO to assess the effectiveness of alternatives to third party cookies.

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.

While there have been privacy concerns about their use, these cookies are used by digital advertisers to personalise and target advertisements more effectively, providing an income stream for free online content such as newspapers.

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. This would cause advertising spending to become even more concentrated on Google, harming consumers who ultimately pay for the cost of advertising. It would also undermine the ability of online publishers such as newspapers to generate revenue and continue to produce valuable content in the future.

The CMA is now consulting on the commitments.  The aim is to protect competition in digital advertising markets while safeguarding users’ privacy.  The commitments also include specific limits on how Google can use and combine customer data for digital advertising.

The commitments offered by Google to the CMA include:

  • A commitment to develop and implement the proposals in a way that avoids distortions to competition and the imposition of unfair terms on Chrome users. This includes a commitment to involve the CMA and the ICO in the development of the proposals to ensure this objective is met.
  • Increased transparency from Google on how and when the proposals will be taken forward and on what basis they will be assessed. This includes a commitment to publicly disclose the results of tests of the effectiveness of alternative technologies.
  • Substantial limits on how Google will use and combine individual user data for the purposes of digital advertising after the removal of third-party cookies.
  • A commitment that Google will not discriminate against its rivals in favour of its own advertising and ad-tech businesses when designing or operating the alternatives to third-party cookies.
  • A standstill period of at least 60 days before Google proceeds with the removal of third party cookies giving the CMA the opportunity, if any outstanding concerns cannot be resolved with Google, to reopen its investigation and, if necessary, impose any interim measures necessary to avoid harm to competition.

The CMA considers that these commitments address its concerns and it is now consulting before deciding whether to accept them. While the commitments aim to address UK competition concerns, they are likely to have implications for the global implementation of Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals.

The consultation will close at 5pm on 8 July 2021. The CMA will then make a final decision on whether to accept the commitments offered. If the commitments are accepted, this would result in the closure of the CMA’s enforcement case, and lead to the next phase of the CMA’s oversight work.

The ICO has commented: “the commitments obtained mark a significant moment in the assessment of the Privacy Sandbox proposals. They demonstrate that consumer rights in digital markets are best protected when competition and privacy are considered together.”