Facebook’s New Cookie

Facebook have made waves recently with the announcement that they’ll be rolling out first-party cookies from October 24th. This move will allow advertisers to track their data without the support of third-party cookies, and follows Apple’s decision last year to supplement Safari with ‘Intelligent Tracking Protection’. ITP, as it’s called, which will wait twenty-four hours before purging any cookies lacking the required login information. In ITP 2.0, things look set to get even more restrictive, with even the twenty-four hours of leeway being withdrawn.

We’re of the opinion that this change will funnel yet more power in the direction of the Big Five while doing remarkably little to empower the user or address longstanding privacy concerns.

What’s Wrong with Third-Party Cookies?

Before we look at exactly why this might be the case, let’s first consider what a third-party cookie actually is: a cookie that’s provided by a site other than the one you’re browsing. Why is this undesirable? There are several reasons, but the most notable concerns privacy. Third-party cookies provide a means of tracking users after they’ve navigated away from the site that issued them.

You might buy something from Amazon and then consult Web MD for information about an embarrassing medical condition, allowing someone out there to associate both with your browsing device. Which is a bit like the cashier at your local Tesco following you to the hospital and taking notes while you undergo a CAT scan!

What’s Wrong with this Trend?

Apple have taken the view that this is an intolerable state of affairs, and have decided to intervene. Ostensibly out of the goodness of their hearts. But the crusade against third-party cookies, however well-intentioned, seems misguided. There’s a danger of unintended consequences and a near-certain probability that marketing data will end up distorted. Suppose one of your customers click on an ad, and then decide only a few days later that they’d like to buy the product. By then, they’ll have exceeded Safari’s twenty-four-hour grace period, and the conversion wouldn’t be recorded. For some types of businesses, where purchases are made only after days and weeks of sceptical browsing, this might be a significant chunk of conversions vanished in a puff of digital smoke. And this distortion is only going to get worse when ITP 2.0 lands.

The response from Facebook is likely, for example, to cause an uptick in conversions for Facebook advertisers because of Safari’s ITP technology. The upshot of all this is that, in several weeks’ time, you might notice your ROI graphs are all trending reassuringly upward. Does that mean that more eyeballs are landing on advertisements, and more purchases are being made? Of course not. But unless you’re aware of these technical changes, you might assume that things are a lot rosier than they actually are. Advertisers who lack an agency partner will begin to place more trust in Facebook’s statistics without paying them the required scrutiny.

When the quality of information suffers, so does the quality of decisions based on that information. But these decisions are all going to be biased in the same direction: assuming that Facebook advertising is yielding a greater return than it is, many businesses are likely to fling a little bit of extra cash in Facebook’s direction.

To be clear, we aren’t saying that tracking via third-party cookies isn’t going to be more of a problem. We just doubt that the solutions being implemented aren’t solutions but simply a way to get around the rules being put in place for privacy reasons. The main losers are almost certain to be Facebook users, and the main beneficiary is almost certain to be Facebook themselves.

This attitude isn’t restricted to Facebook and Apple. In a recent blog, Mozilla have hinted that they’re going to be incorporating their own version of ITP into future versions of FireFox: “Practices like these make the web a more hostile place to be. Future versions of Firefox will block these practices by default.” When the wind is blowing so decisively in one direction, it’s difficult to see any other outcome than the ubiquity of third-party blocking. Is this going to benefit the end user? We’re not convinced.

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