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Google Just Disabled Cookies for 30 Million Chrome Users. Here’s How to Tell If You’re One of Them.

Today marks the first of many upcoming moments of silence in Google’s years-long plan to kill cookies. As of this morning, the Chrome web browser disabled cookies for 1% of its users, about 30 million people. By the end of the year, cookies will be gone in Chrome forever—sort of.

For privacy advocates, cookies are the original sin of the internet. Throughout most of the web’s history, cookies were one of the primary ways that tech companies tracked your behavior online. For targeted ads and many other kinds of tracking, websites rely on cookies made by other companies (such as Google). These are known as “third-party cookies,” and they’re built into the internet’s infrastructure. They’re everywhere. If you visited Gizmodo without an ad blocker or some other kind of tracking protection, we might have given you some cookies ourselves. Sorry.

Back in 2019, years of bad news about Google, Facebook, and other tech companies’ privacy malpractices got so loud that Silicon Valley had to address it. Google, which makes the vast majority of its money tracking you and showing you ads online, announced that it was embarking on a project to get rid of third-party cookies in Chrome. Something like 60% of internet users are on Chrome, so Google getting rid of the technology will essentially kill cookies forever.

“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,” Victor Wong, Google’s senior director of product management for Privacy Sandbox, told Gizmodo in an interview in April of 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.”

January 4th, 2023, marks the first phase of Google’s grand cookie-killing spree. If you’re among the 30 million people to experience the joy of a cookieless web, here’s what you’ll see.

How to tell if Google turned off your cookies

The first thing you’ll see is a popup in Chrome, describing Google’s new “Tracking Protection,” as the company calls its cookie murder plan. If you’re like so many of us, you respond to pop-ups with an extreme vigilance that often overlooks the contents of whatever messages your computer wants you to see, so you might miss it.

There are other signs you can look for to see that you aren’t getting a bunch of cookies dropped on you. When tracking protection is on, you’ll see a little eyeball logo in the URL bar.

You can click on that eyeball if you want to allow a particular website to use cookies on you, and you might because this change in Chrome is almost guaranteed to break some websites. The good news is Chrome has a bunch of new features that will disable Tracking Protection if it detects a website is having problems.

Finally, you can go check your browser’s preferences. If you open up Chrome’s settings, you’ll find a bunch of nice toggles and controls about cookies under the “Privacy and security” section. If they’re all turned on and you don’t remember changing them, you might be one of the lucky 30 million winners in Google’s initial test phase.

Google is still tracking you, but it’s a little more private

Of course, Google isn’t about to destroy its own business. It doesn’t want to hurt every company that makes money with ads, either, because Google is fighting numerous lawsuits from regulators who accuse the company of running a big ol’ monopoly on the internet. So, Google is replacing cookies with a new way to track users that harvest your data in a way that, according to Google, is much better for your privacy.

Google calls this project the “Privacy Sandbox.” It involves several stupendously complicated tools and technologies. In general, the Chrome browser itself will track what you’re doing online, but it stores that data on your device instead of sending it off to Google or anyone else. Chrome then sorts you into different groups based on what kind of person you are. Websites and advertising companies can ask Chrome what cohort you’re in (e.g. people who like high-performance auto parts or hair removal products). However, there’s no way for a company to learn about your individual browsing behavior without breaking Google’s rules.

This is better than the status quo, which involves billions of pieces of incredibly sensitive information about you flying all over the internet. It’s not exactly privacy, either, because you’re being tracked. Other browsers, such as Firefox, DuckDuckGo, and Apple’s Safari blocked third-party cookies a while ago, and they haven’t replaced them with new tracking tools, more private or otherwise.

In Google’s defense, the company can’t shut off the flow of data to all of its competitors without risking the full force of the anti-monopoly police in the US, the EU, and elsewhere. Still, privacy advocates aren’t all thrilled about Chrome’s new data regime.

“Google and its subsidiary companies have tightened their grips on the throat of internet innovation, all while employing the now familiar tactic of marketing these things as beneficial for users,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a recent blog post. Google’s Privacy Sandbox “limits tracking so it’s only done by a single powerful party, Chrome itself, who then gets to dole out its learnings to advertisers that are willing to pay. This is just another step in transforming the browser from a user agent to an advertising agent.”

The EFF recommends that Chrome users install its Privacy Badger browser extension, a tool that disables Chrome’s new tracking settings automatically and blocks all kinds of other data harvesting as you use the web.

A lot of advertising companies have jumped on board with Google’s new tracking tools, but some view it as an anticompetitive threat to their businesses. In other words, Privacy Sandbox and the new changes to Chrome are too private for some tech industry players, but not private enough for some privacy advocates.

Last year, I asked Google’s Victor Wong how he feels about embarking on a project that makes people mad on every side of the issue. His response was what you might expect.

“I think it’s telling us that we’re doing things right,” Wong said. “We’ve just chosen to take a path that we think balances it for everyone because, like I said, we’re part of a broader ecosystem. We’re trying to improve the lives of consumers and the livelihood of the entrepreneurs, the publishers, creators, and developers everywhere. You’ll never get all these different groups to ever fully agree on one strategy.”

Are cookies going away forever? Well, no.

Have you ever wondered what a cookie actually is? Basically, it’s a text file, a string of letters and numbers that are supposed to be unique to you, or at least to your recent browsing sessions. Websites store these cookies in your browser, and when you visit a site, they check to see if they recognize your cookies. That’s used to check databases of information about you.

“First-party cookies” are cookies that are operated by the website you’re looking at. These can be harmless and even useful. First-party cookies can be used to keep track of the fact that you’re logged in or remember of what you’ve added to your cart. These cookies aren’t going anywhere, Google and plenty of users love them.

However, those third-party cookies are used to spy on you, in general. (Remember, we talked about third-party cookies at the top of this story. How did you get down here without reading that?) Third-party cookies help online advertising companies keep track of every website you visit and the things you do when you’re there. These are the ones that Google is killing. RIP.

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