Google Will Turn Off Cookies for 30 Million People on January 4

Google announced Thursday that it will start its long-anticipated slaughter of the internet’s cookies starting on January 4th, when it will block them for 1% of Chrome users, or about 30 million people. It’s the first major step in its Privacy Sandbox project, which aims to replace cookies with a different kind of tracking that Google says is better for your privacy.

For the past 30 years, websites and tech companies have used so-called “third-party cookies” as the primary way to track consumers online. Has that pair of shoes you added to your cart three weeks ago been following you around in ads on the web? There are probably third-party cookies involved. These cookies let websites partner with other companies including Google and tons of others to keep tabs on everything you do online. That’s great for companies, and terrible for your privacy because it means there are a lot of businesses who get to keep a history of all of your web browsing.

In place of cookies, Google has introduced a new set of tools that makes the Chrome browser itself keep tabs on what you’re doing online. Essentially, that data stays on your device, and your browser sorts you into various categories, or “Ad Topics” as Google calls them. Think “Yoga Fan” or “Young Conservative.” Websites can ask Chrome what categories you’re in, but they won’t be able to figure out exactly who you are (at least not using cookies, there are other less popular techniques).

Make no mistake, Chrome is still tracking you, and doing it in a way that browsers like Firefox and Safari don’t. But most people don’t bother to change browsers, and if nothing else, Google’s shiny new version of Chrome is a step forward for privacy because it reveals less information about you and what you’ve been up to on the internet.

“We are making one of the largest changes to how the Internet works at a time when people, more than ever, are relying on the free services and content that the web offers,” said Victor Wong, Google’s senior director of product management for Privacy Sandbox, told Gizmodo in an interview in April, 2023. “The mission of the Privacy Sandbox team writ large is to keep people’s activity private across a free and open Internet, and that supports the broader company mission, which is to make sure that information is still accessible for everyone and useful.”

These Privacy Sandbox cookie replacements are already available on the Chrome browser, but for now, it’s an optional tool. You can go into your settings and disable them if you don’t like the idea.

These moves are a big deal because the vast majority of internet users are on Chrome, which means when Google is done with its cookie killing, they’ll essentially be dead for good.

If you see a popup in Chrome on January 4th, that means you’re in the test group of 1% of users who are getting “Tracking Protection” by default, which is Google’s name for the cookie-blocking tool. When tracking protection is on, you’ll see a little eyeball logo in the URL bar.

This is a major change to how the internet works, so there are going to be some bugs. Cookies aren’t just used for spying, they also keep track of whether you’re logged in, what you have in your cart, and a variety of other convenient things. Google is working to single out the bad cookies and save the good ones, but some things will inevitably break in the early stages. You’ll be able to disable Tracking Protection on the fly to solve any issues, and Chrome will prompt you to disable it for a given website if it notices you’re having issues.

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