Fair Competition on the Post-Cookie Web

Don Marti, CafeMedia's VP of Ecosystem Innovation, examines what Google‘s antitrust cases mean for the future of independent publishing in a post-cookie world.

If you’ve been keeping an eye on the high-profile antitrust cases involving Google, you might have some questions on how the worldwide focus on regulating Big Tech will affect independent web publishers in the future.

Some antitrust cases, like this Texas case in the US, focus on the details of how Google interacts with today‘s web advertising market.

But what about the future, when third-party cookies come to an end and browsers take a bigger role in ad placement and reporting?

The CMA‘s investigation

One country‘s regulatory news gives us some valuable hints.

In the UK, a recent investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) resulted in regulators looking at Google‘s future web ad system, the Privacy Sandbox.

The CMA announced, “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.”

Google has already made one set of commitments to the CMA, covering some details of how they will make an effort to keep Privacy Sandbox ads fair.

But, not surprisingly, for a company with so many complex interactions with other businesses, the commitments don‘t yet cover the full range of possible problems the Privacy Sandbox could cause for independent web publishers.

The future must be fair

For online advertising to continue to be valuable to brands by enabling them to run their ads on quality content instead of the misinformation and fraud on big social platforms, future ads must ensure fair treatment for publishers of all sizes.

As part of our active role in building the future of web ads, we wrote to the CMA to suggest some additional areas where regulation or commitments will be needed to, as Vinay Goel at Google wrote, “give companies and developers the tools to build thriving digital businesses to keep the web open and accessible to everyone, now, and for the future.”

Here‘s what we proposed:

1. Owned-and-operated sites

By removing third-party cookies, Google‘s owned-and-operated (O&O) ad inventory will have an even greater advantage over targeting on the open web. Ultimately, this would be an advantage for Google and Facebook.

Google should commit not to use publisher audience data for any purposes other than providing the contracted service to the publisher.  

Under the current CMA commitments, if someone is looking at DIY plumbing content on an independent publisher‘s site, Google could serve recommended videos on YouTube to that person about DIY plumbing.

Then, if the person watches the plumbing video, Google can use this video context to show a related ad. But the ability to place this ad ultimately came from the original publisher‘s data.

A commitment from Google not to use any publisher‘s data for any purpose other than providing services to the publisher would prevent this sort of circumvention.

2. Selective bug fixing

In cases where a bug in Google software has an anti-competitive effect, it often appears to be fixed more slowly than a bug fix that would create or sustain an advantage for Google.

People should choose web software based on the features and experience they want, not because the browser they like breaks on a Google site or a site they like breaks with Google‘s browser.

Google should report to CMA on the fraction of Chrome-related web compatibility issues reported that affect Privacy Sandbox sites and non-Privacy Sandbox sites and the status of each fix. Google should commit to posting timely and accurate updates to webcompat.com, where some Chrome developers are already active participants.

3. First-Party Sets

Google developers propose a new web standard, “First-Party Sets,” that allows some data sharing across multiple domains when the sharing is clear to the user and carried out in a way that complies with the user‘s privacy preferences.

The current version of the proposal contains some wording about site ownership that would impose record-keeping costs and risks on independent sites without creating privacy or security benefits for users.

At the same time, the proposal, as it stands now, would put pressure on independent sites to sell out to a big company to get preferential treatment from the browser.

We want a fair set of rules that all sites can comply with. As part of our continuing participation in the web standards process, we proposed enhancements to First-Party Sets that would benefit users and independent sites.

4. Search engine placement

Google has, in the past, used the placement of a site in search results to promote its other services.

For example, Google promoted the adoption of its Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) proposal by requiring it for placement in a key spot in Google News. Google encouraged sites to place “Google Plus” links on pages by rewarding them with better placement in search results.

But when the Privacy Sandbox rolls out, Google should make a broad commitment not to rank sites in search results based on adoption or non-adoption of Privacy Sandbox features.

5. Invalid Traffic (IVT) policies

Each month, Google routinely rejects a fraction of ad impressions as “invalid” and refuses to pay the publisher for them. While this is something we cover for the publishers we work with, many publishers watch numbers drop in their monthly reporting due to IVT.

Google should commit to aggregated reporting on IVT deductions applied to publishers who adopt Privacy Sandbox technologies. A simple summary report on IVT deductions would be appropriate because this is a sensitive area for fraud and security.


It‘s encouraging to see regulators pay attention to the future and not just make policy in the rearview mirror.

As previous generations learned from the IBM and Microsoft antitrust cases, by the time a complex legal process can react to an ever-changing software project, the software is already doing something else.

The existing Google commitments to CMA would not only fail to limit impactful and hard-to-measure anti-competitive tactics but would also send a clear warning signal to all other participants in the market that these tactics are still available to Google.

Publishers can do their best in an environment that advertisers can trust. Ads on independent, quality sites are more trustworthy than ads in hard-to-moderate social “bubbles.”

We need to make sure that regulation addresses the problem practices in web advertising without imposing unnecessary burdens that would drive advertisers away from legitimate sites.

And that‘s where our continual activity in the industry really matters for you.  Together, we can build a future web that‘s great for you, your readers and advertisers alike!


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