September 18, 2013 11:53 pm

Google explores cookie alternatives

Google is looking at curbing online tracking©AFP

Google is exploring an alternative to cookies, the controversial and widely-used pieces of code that track online behaviour for advertising purposes, according to a person familiar with its thinking.

The internet search company has been considering using a new type of personal identifier that could replace cookies and might make it easier for internet users to take greater control over information that advertisers can gather about them.

News of the company’s thinking, first reported in USA Today, comes at a time when efforts in the US to agree on a self-regulatory regime covering the use of cookies are in danger of collapsing.

Advertisers have dug their heels in against changes that would greatly limit the amount of information they can collect, while privacy advocates and others have pushed for a stronger “do not track” regime.

Companies whose internet browsers play a key role in the way personal data are collected have already weighed in, in an effort to break the deadlock.

Apple blocks cookies with its Safari browser and instead gives its users control over information contained in a single personal identifier – a method similar to the one Google has been considering.

Meanwhile Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser, has antagonised advertisers with its own proposals for a unilateral “do not track” system.

As both the biggest beneficiary of online advertising as well as the owner of the most widely used browser, Google has far more at stake, as well as different motivations about whether or not to suppress cookies.

With a personal identifier, internet users would be able to adjust a single setting in their browser to determine how much information about them is given to advertisers.

However, its impact would depend greatly on how the idea was implemented – for instance, whether it was presented as an option to replace cookies or was set as a browser default.

Google representatives have discussed the company’s thinking on personal identifiers with others in the industry through the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the trade body, according to the person familiar with the situation. No firm proposal had been put forward, though the company saw considerable promise in the idea, this person added.

Last year, Google agreed to pay a $22.5m fine to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceived users about tracking “cookies”, which it used to serve them targeted ads in the Safari browser.

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