Google as a de facto privacy regulator: Analyzing Chrome’s removal of third-party cookies from an antitrust perspective

By Damien Geradin, Dimitrios Katsifis & Theano Karanikioti (Geradin Partners)

Online advertising is what funds free online content. Since its birth in the 1990’s, it has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry. At the core of this industry lies the ability to identify and track users through various technical means, such as web cookies. Online tracking for advertising purposes has sparked privacy concerns, and is subject to a growing body of regulation across the world. But the most important rules seem to come from a handful of large technology platforms, namely Google and Apple. In their capacity as suppliers of the most popular browsers and smart mobile OSs, these companies are taking a series of measures in the name of user privacy that restrict the ability to identify users, thus shaking the very foundations of online advertising. In what is a first in a series of papers exploring Google and Apple’s role as de facto privacy regulators for online advertising, we propose to explore in detail Chrome’s decision to phase out support for third-party cookies, accompanied by a set of proposals known as the Privacy Sandbox. Considering that Google is the subject of growing antitrust scrutiny in the US and Europe, we query whether Chrome’s decision raises any antitrust concerns – and if so, how such concerns fit within existing antitrust investigations. At a conceptual level, we use this paper as an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between competition law and privacy and the trade-offs regulators may have to make.

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