Reports of the Cookie's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated -- and That's Good

The Real Issue Is Whether Corporate Giants Will Control Them

By Published on .

It's the season when ad industry executives offer their predictions for next year, and I'd like to head off speculation about one that's sure to come up: the death of the cookie.

Next year, and the year after, the cookie will still be with us. And that is a good thing for advertisers, publishers and consumer privacy. Those who think otherwise have several mistaken assumptions about the what, why and how of this remarkable identifying feature embedded on our computers.

The cookie is said to be dying for many reasons: "It doesn't work for television, and across different devices." "All the browsers will begin blocking it, and all the consumers will opt out." "Cookies are limited on mobile, and mobile is the future of content and advertising."

These views seem reasonable. But they come from a misunderstanding of what a cookie is and why, no matter what it's called, it's not going away. A cookie is a file that stores an anonymous identifier that lives on a device. Its original purpose was to allow users to go to their favorite websites without having to log in every time.

Cookies ultimately came to support marketing purposes, such as fraud detection, billing and frequency capping for ad campaigns. These crucial functions have become indispensable to a smoother user experience. The digital-marketing industry has a bounty of audience-targeting technologies and strategies at its disposal, but anonymous identifiers will always play a role.

Whether the file containing the anonymous identifier is stored on a device or server doesn't really matter. It's here to stay. The issue is, does that identifier become locked behind the wall of a few corporate giants, or does it remain a mechanism that supports the start-ups and small businesses that fuel our vibrant and innovative ecosystem? When we talk about killing the cookie, we are being distracted from the real issue: who gets to control it.

There are two factions that stand to benefit if the cookie is displaced. The first group is made up of the Microsofts, Googles and Apples who are vying to be the main point of entry for consumers' interactions on the web, whether consumers are commenting on or sharing a blog post, purchasing movie tickets or downloading music. These companies want to monopolize control over this data. If you use a Google operating system, a Google browser, and log in across the web with your Google ID, Google becomes the primary entity that can determine the majority of content and advertising you see.

While there are obvious conveniences to having personalized content and advertising, there are considerable downsides to oligopolies. For the most part, as these companies try to consolidate control over user data, competition and independence are reduced in the greater internet ecosystem.

In other words, it's a return to the walled gardens of the late 1990s, when AOL sought to create its own web-within-the-web. But now, as opposed to charging a subscription fee to users for access to content, these companies would be using advertising and user data in exchange for access. That would present an even greater threat to privacy than that perceived by anti-cookie activists.

And that represents anunintended consequence to the other group that has been calling for the death of the cookie. Privacy advocates in Europe have been aggressive in trying to kill the cookie. But after a small taste of what a world with a diminished cookie jar looks like, there's been some pushback against those efforts.

After the European Union's Data Protection Working Party, which represents all 28 data protection authorities within the EU, created laws against setting cookies, users quickly revolted after having to manually opt-in to each website after being faced with annoying pop-ups notifying them that every website uses cookies. As Europeans quickly discovered, there is no neat and simple way for the internet to go cookie-free.

The final point is the debate over what is an anonymous identifier. Many anti-cookie activists believe that a persistent identifier is by definition personally identifiable. What they more likely fear is that the longer an anonymous identifier is around the greater the chance that a nefarious actor, without appropriate notice and choice by the user, might appropriate that user's personal identity and join it to this anonymous identifier. If we fear the joining of personal identifiers to anonymous ones, let's ensure that that becomes the primary topic of debate rather than blaming the helpful cookie.

These identifiers, whatever they may be called or wherever they reside, are an ever-present fact that ensures a better user experience. Let's hope that by the time 2015 rolls around, the industry has done a better job of explaining to the general public the role anonymous identifiers play in easier access to content and in the vitality of commerce.

Joshua Koran is senior VP of product management at Turn.

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