The Competition and Markets Authority says it has secured improved commitments on Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative.

The tech giant is proposing to remove third-party cookies and other functionalities from its Chrome browser, with the stated aim of creating a web that both protects people’s privacy online and gives companies and developers the tools to build thriving digital businesses.

It intends to ‘develop a set of open standards to fundamentally enhance privacy on the web, giving people more transparency and greater control over how their data is used’.

UK competition watchdog the CMA launched an investigation into alleged anti-competitive behaviour at the start of the year following proposed changes to the initiative which led to a string of complaints, including from the Marketers for an Open Web group.

There are concerns that, without the CMA’s involvement in the changes, Google’s alternatives could be developed and implemented in ways that impede competition in digital advertising markets. 

There are fears this may cause advertising spending to become even more concentrated on Google, harming consumers – who ultimately pay for the cost of advertising – and the ability of online publishers such as newspapers to generate revenue.

Initial commitments offered by Google in June were not accepted by the CMA and more than 40 interested parties, the CMA says. They called for them to be strengthened in order to increase Google’s transparency and engagement with the industry; allowing certain functionality to remain before third-party cookies; improving the provisions on Google self-preferencing its advertising products and services; and bolstering the monitoring of Google’s compliance.

How three self-confessed introverts created one of the UK’s most exciting tech firms

To address these points, Google has now offered to mention the CMA’s role within the process in key public announcements; instruct its staff not to make claims to customers which contradict the commitments; report regularly to the CMA on how Google has taken account of third party views; address concerns about Google removing functionality or information before the full Privacy Sandbox changes, including by delaying enforcement of its Privacy Budget proposal, and offering commitments around the introduction of measures to reduce access to IP addresses; clarify the internal limits on the data that Google can use; provide greater certainty to third parties developing alternative technologies; improve the provisions on reporting and compliance, including by appointing a CMA-approved monitoring trustee; and provide for a longer duration of six years from the date of any decision to accept Google’s modified commitments.

The CMA’s provisional view is that Google’s revised offer addresses its competition concerns, so the CMA is now consulting on the modifications.

“We have always been clear that Google’s efforts to protect users’ privacy cannot come at the cost of reduced competition,” said CMA Chief Executive Andrea Coscelli.

“That’s why we have worked with the Information Commissioner’s Office, the CMA’s international counterparts and parties across this sector throughout this process to secure an outcome that works for everyone.

“We welcome Google’s co-operation and are grateful to all the interested parties who engaged with us during the consultation.

“If accepted, the commitments we have obtained from Google become legally binding, promoting competition in digital markets, helping to protect the ability of online publishers to raise money through advertising and safeguarding users’ privacy.”

The CMA will now consult on these new commitments until the end of the year. If the commitments are accepted, this would result in the closure of the CMA’s investigation, with it then beginning its oversight work.

Google’s plan is for Chrome to phase out third-party cookies over a period of several months ending in late 2023.