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That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” is said when something slightly unlucky has happened that could not have been prevented and so must be accepted. In light of the recent Google announcement to develop a “Privacy Sandbox” (to rethink the cookie and preserve the future of the ad-supported web), I can think of no more appropriate context. The truth is, we are at a critical inflection point in our digital development. We cannot simply sit idly by and watch the continued erosion of trust, privacy and -- ultimately the ad supported Internet any longer. It is always easy to criticize the big tech companies, but I commend Google for raising this issue and surfacing some suggestions on how to fix it.


I’ll offer two additional pieces of context as they have been meaningful data points for me. The first is an eye opening TED talk from Jaron Lanier. Jaron is considered to be the founding father of virtual reality and is a well-known computer scientist, visual artist and composer of classical music. In his talk he describes the utopian belief in the early 90’s that the Internet was destined to be free, open, available to all, and ultimately paid for through an advertising model. It was at that point that we potentially “sold our soul to the devil” (my words not his). Over the past three decades an industry has been built on the collecting, harvesting and manipulation of consumer data to pay for that free Internet, and Jaron postulates it is time to rethink the model. If we don’t, he suggests it will be the end of civilization as we know it.


Secondly, as Jaron mentioned in his talk, I recently started reading some of the work from Norbert Weiner, the father of Cybernetics. In the 1950’s he published a book called the “Human Use of Human Beings”. It was a prescient book, and one where he discusses the ways for humans and machines to cooperate with the potential to amplify human power and encourage creativity and the arts. He also highlights the risk that if left unchecked, we could forever harm society. While I haven’t read the book in its entirety yet, his predictions on the complex relationship between man and machine (and the utopia and dystopia that could result) is amazing given it was written nearly 70 years ago.


Back to the “Privacy Sandbox”. The first thing we need to do is admit that we have a problem. I think we’d be hard pressed to not acknowledge that. Now we need to collectively work on a solution.


Justin Schuh, Director Chrome Engineering at Google wrote a blog post on August 22nd announcing “a new initiative to develop a set of open standards to fundamentally enhance privacy on the web.” He called it a “Privacy Sandbox” and described the issue that Google is trying to solve. “Technology that publishers and advertisers use to make advertising even more relevant to people is now being used far beyond its original design intent - to a point where some data practices don’t match up to user expectations for privacy.”


He goes on to describe that large-scale blocking of cookies has led to new techniques such as “fingerprinting”. Fingerprinting creates a unique identifier for each user based on their hardware, installed software, fonts, and settings and is completely opaque to users. He then suggests that the indiscriminate blocking of cookies (and subsequent reduction in relevant ad experiences) has the potential to dramatically reduce the viability of the ad-supported digital ecosystem. There must be a better way.


Initially, Google has announced a plan to improve the classification of cookies and thwart the practice of “fingerprinting”. In the post he goes on to describe “over the last couple of weeks, we’ve started sharing our preliminary ideas for a Privacy Sandbox - a secure environment for personalization that also protects user privacy. Some ideas include new approaches to ensure that ads continue to be relevant for users, but user data shared with websites and advertisers would be minimized by anonymously aggregating user information, and keeping much more user information on-device only. Our goal is to create a set of standards that is more consistent with users’ expectations of privacy.”


There is a lot more work to do over the coming weeks and months in this area. It will take some unusual bedfellows to potentially work together in the hopes of arriving at an industry solution. While today, privacy could be viewed as a point of difference and competitive advantage, ultimately it needs to be table stakes and the foundation upon which the industry is built.


Without being overly dramatic, the future of the ad-supported Internet lays in the balance. In my opinion, we must work with equal fervor to protect consumer privacy, provide transparency and choice and responsibly support the digital advertising economy. The solution should not be locked within the walled gardens – but democratized and agreed as a collective. Only then will we have a hope of leaving our children and our children’s children a vibrant and flourishing digital ecosystem to enjoy for decades to come.

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