Third-Party Cookie Controversy: Weighing the Alternatives; Decoding the Battle over Behavioral Advertising

Dodson, Max, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Vrugtman, Rosanne, EN-Comp Science Dept, University of Virginia
Stafford, William, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Online tracking is a common yet controversial practice that websites use for serving and measuring personalized advertisements. By attempting to predict a user’s interests and subsequently display ads for related products, advertisers hope to increase the likelihood that users will make a purchase. Digital advertising groups have long been able to build profiles on user behavior by tracking users as they browsed the web. These profiles are then used to understand user interests and display ads for similar goods and services. The use of personal data for these purposes is steeped in controversy, especially as online privacy is a growing concern for many internet users. The technical report analyzes several alternative technologies to the popular cookie-based approach used to track user interests. The report explains the technical details underlying these methods and examines the degree to which they protect user privacy. The STS research paper identifies and discusses the participants in the ongoing debate over user privacy, online tracking, and the technologies that enable it.

Many of the current online tracking methods are powered by cookies: small pieces of data sent back and forth between a website and a user’s device. First-party cookies are stored by the website a user is currently visiting, while third-party cookies are stored by a different website. The elimination of third-party cookies has been lauded as a necessary step toward increasing user privacy online, as concerns are growing about personalized advertising and the private user data that powers it. To replace third-party cookies without severely disrupting online advertising, new methods of gleaning user preferences are being devised. Proposed alternatives include the Topics API by Google, browser fingerprinting, and contextual advertising. Upon studying and comparing these three approaches, I found that contextual advertising is the most privacy-preserving. Browser fingerprinting for interest-based tracking does not protect privacy and is less transparent than cookies. Topics sits in the middle, enabling interest-based tracking with some additional privacy protections compared to cookie-based tracking. Additional study is needed to understand the nuances of consumer privacy demands and assess the actual privacy impacts of these technologies as they are further implemented.

The removal of third-party cookies is a significant shift in the digital advertising industry and the debate over user privacy. The STS research paper identifies the many participants involved, such as users, advertisers, browser vendors, publishers, governments, and more, highlighting the complexities and potential challenges this development poses. It specifically investigates the impending changes to Google Chrome and the outsized impact these will have compared to those of other web browsers. The paper analyzes the relationships between the entities involved, including instances of both collaboration and conflict. The paper also discusses the power dynamics between various actors, and how they exert their influence as they navigate this debate. Ultimately, the paper reveals a complex interplay of interests among these parties and illustrates their roles in shaping digital advertising and privacy practices.

Together, the two papers aim to inform the dialogue on user privacy and online advertising by discussing both the participants and technologies at play. There are competing interests between those who argue personalized advertising supports ecommerce and those who oppose it for privacy reasons. As governments and the public demand greater protections for user privacy, it is crucial to understand the various stakeholders and technologies involved. The technical report provides insight into the technical workings and privacy implications of emerging technologies, while the STS research paper illustrates the diverse perspectives and interests of the entities involved. Ultimately, the papers contribute to a more holistic understanding of this debate, as well as the challenges and opportunities it presents.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
third-party cookie, privacy, advertising, user tracking

School of Engineering and Applied Science

Bachelor of Science in Computer Science

Technical Advisor: Rosanne Vrugtman

STS Advisor: William Stafford, Jr.

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