What Is Happening To Cookies? Interview With Michael Sprague, CTO

Google plans to phase out third-party cookies from their Chrome browser by 2022.

This announcement has taken the advertising industry by storm, with most marketers unsure about how to protect their tracking and attribution. While these tools are aimed at protecting privacy, many are panicking that they will have severe implications on the industry as a whole.

So what is happening to cookies? The whole thing is not quite what it seems, so we sat down with GeistM’s Chief Technology Officer, Michael Sprague to discuss.

Can you give us a brief overview of the relationship between privacy and the Internet?

Some history helps. The Internet was originally an academic project. I’ll admit I falsified credentials to get my first email address. The web came after email and was devised to share reference documents, basically Wikipedia. Then ISP’s, the browser, and the simplicity of HTML made it accessible to everyone.

But you ask about privacy. Privacy matters. If your personal records are owned by an institution you don’t trust, or might transfer to an institution you don’t trust, things can go very wrong. There is a reason Germany spearheads the privacy laws.

That said, the counterpart to privacy is disguise. "On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog". (most shared internet comic ever). It’s easy to troll and slander when you can regularly shed your skin.

Facebook launched to the public in 2004 and made an explicit attempt to ensure there were no fake people. I have a few. This tension between identity and privacy has been going on forever, and it really underscores the looming cookie crisis.

Can you explain what cookies are and what’s currently happening with Google and third-party cookies?

Cookies were devised very early on as a way to establish some continuity between a site and a browser. We first did this by simply matching IP addresses in the server logs. Being recognized and remembered is generally a social good. "Welcome Back", you know. A little altruism and a lot of advertising interest was behind this.

So what does this mean for advertisers and the general public?

Let’s say you go into incognito mode and then you try to log-in to a website that usually would allow you to automatically login with your Gmail credentials. It’s not going to work because Google is a third-party and can’t recognize you. These sorts of features will stop working, but so will a lot of ad tracking.

How is GeistM navigating the third-party cookie crisis?

Cookies are not the only tool for tracking a journey through the Internet. Partnering with our clients and publishers also enables us to create our own first-party relationships.

But I think the really interesting thing to come out of this is that it breeds innovation. Cookies aren’t a very sophisticated mechanism, but they have been useful for a long time, largely for being so simple to implement. This change forces everyone to collaborate on a new model. It’s only a crisis for those who aren’t paying attention. We’ll be sure that our clients won’t be left behind.

How does this tie-in with antitrust sentiment towards Big Tech?

There’s a huge technical dissonance with many of the laws that have been put into action. People forget that Big Tech is often involved in the drafting of these laws. In the name of privacy we are legislating monopolies rather than hindering them. While the big companies might feign government overreach, in reality, it doesn’t really affect them. They control the devices and platforms we all use to access the web. They don’t need cookies. Government is helping Google take out the competition.

Google might tell you that you won’t be able to use your Gmail to log-in through their old mechanism, but they still own the Chrome browser. That feature will likely become part of the browser and no longer work with Safari, sorry. Every app, like Facebook, also has its own identity. My point is, if you’re big enough to own the actual end point, then all of this is moot. We’re being duped, but I think the industry is ready for the challenge

In your opinion what is going to be the biggest takeaway to come out of the third-party cookie crisis?

I think moments like this when there are new laws under consideration, like an antitrust against Facebook, it generates a lot of opportunity. I think over the course of 2021 we’re going to see a lot of new infrastructure that will challenge Google and Facebook in ways that they aren’t even thinking about yet. There was actually a decentralized Facebook about fifteen years ago and many other attempts to create competing ecosystems, but they never took off because they just didn’t have the muscle to make it happen. It also didn’t really seem necessary at the time.

But once the problem is brought to the surface and people start to feel its implications, that’s when you can finally introduce something new. GeistM actually has several methods of non-cookie tracking under patent review. While we can’t discuss too much, there are a number of things that intrigue me. The first is recognizing that for many years advertising worked through The Nielsen Company. You didn’t have to know everything about a specific user, you just needed to know enough information about a larger demographic to allow yourself to make statistically significant inferences. I think there’s a way to not have any individually identified browser, but still have enough data to be mathematically accurate.

Another aspect that is becoming much more prevalent is fingerprinting. The reason you don’t have to sign into Google anymore is because they don’t care about your password. It’s like recognizing a browser’s "face" rather than relying on the secret code word.

Unlike the vast majority of digital marketers, we see Google’s decision as a welcomed and much-needed challenge. Our unique blend of owned and operated publications, proprietary technology, and veteran growth experience puts us in an ideal position to tackle this head-on. In essence, we want to take all of the available and emerging technologies and combine them in the most efficient way possible that allows us to continue to tell our clients' stories.

Grow Your Business With GeistM Now!

Tell Your Story