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Watchdog investigates proposed Chrome changes over ‘Google walled garden’ fears

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An investigation is being launched into proposed changes to Google’s Chrome browser over fears the tech giant could abuse its dominant position in online advertising.

The UK’s competition watchdog will look into how the possible removal of third-party cookies and other functionalities from Chrome could distort competition.

Online publishers such as newspapers rely on third-party cookies to target advertising effectively and fund their content.

But the use of these cookies comes with privacy concerns, as they allow consumers’ behaviour to be tracked across the web.

Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), said: “As the CMA found in its recent market study, Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals will potentially have a very significant impact on publishers like newspapers, and the digital advertising market.

“But there are also privacy concerns to consider, which is why we will continue to work with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) as we progress this investigation, while also engaging directly with Google and other market participants about our concerns.”

Improving privacy was Google’s argument for the plans – known as the Privacy Sandbox project – when it first revealed a proposed phasing out of support for third-party cookies in Chrome a year ago.

However, the CMA said it will assess the matter following complaints of anticompetitive behaviour, with Marketers for an Open Web (MOW), a group of newspaper publishers and technology companies, among those concerned.

“This is about the future of the Open Web and the threat that Google poses to its development,” said James Rosewell, director of MOW.

“By launching this investigation, the CMA has recognised the seriousness of this issue.

“Privacy Sandbox would effectively create a Google-owned walled garden that would close down the competitive, vibrant Open Web.

“Providing more directly identifiable, personal information to Google does not protect anyone’s privacy.

“We believe that the CMA’s investigation will confirm this and save the web for future generations.”

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Google says that coming up with new technologies involves complicated trade-offs, but people’s expectations for the collection and use of data are changing.

The firm has committed to publicly collaborating on the plans before making any changes in 2022.

“Creating a more private web, while also enabling the publishers and advertisers who support the free and open internet, requires the industry to make major changes to the way digital advertising works,” a spokesperson said.

“The Privacy Sandbox has been an open initiative since the beginning and we welcome the CMA’s involvement as we work to develop new proposals to underpin a healthy, ad-supported web without third-party cookies.”

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