Google will turn off cookies on January 4 for 30 million people, or 1% of Chrome users

In its ongoing efforts to comply with privacy regulations, Google made a significant announcement on Thursday. Starting January 4th, the company said it plans to start the phase-out of the long-anticipated third-party cookies in Chrome.

The move will impact 1% of Chrome users, roughly 30 million people. This marks the initial step in Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative, which aims to replace cookies with an alternative tracking method claimed to be more privacy-friendly.

However, don’t start celebrating just yet; this doesn’t mean Google has ceased tracking your online activities altogether. Google Chrome continues to track users, employing a method distinct from browsers like Firefox and Safari. Unfortunately, many users don’t bother switching browsers. On a positive note, Google’s updated Chrome version is considered a privacy improvement, revealing less information about users’ online activities.

Instead of cookies, Google has introduced a new set of tools that enables the Chrome browser itself to monitor your online behavior. This data remains on your device, with the browser categorizing you into various groups or “Ad Topics,” such as “Yoga Fan” or “Young Conservative.” While websites can inquire about your categories, they won’t be able to identify you precisely, at least not through cookies.

The development comes just three years after Google was fined €600,000 for failure to comply with European rules on a person’s “right to be forgotten” online. The fine, the highest fine ever imposed by the Belgian authority, came after Google rejected a Belgian citizen’s request to remove obsolete and damaging search results from the site’s search results.

For the past three decades, websites and tech companies have relied on “third-party cookies” as the primary means of tracking online consumer behavior. If you’ve noticed ads for a pair of shoes you added to your cart weeks ago following you around the web, third-party cookies are likely involved. These cookies allow websites to collaborate with various companies, including Google, to monitor your online activity, posing a privacy concern.

Victor Wong, Google’s senior director of product management for Privacy Sandbox, emphasized the substantial changes in how the internet functions. He stated that the Privacy Sandbox team’s mission is to ensure people’s online activities remain private across a free and open internet, aligning with Google’s broader mission of making information accessible and useful for everyone, Gizmodo reported.

“We are making one of the largest changes to how the Internet works at a time when people, more than ever, are relying on the free services and content that the web offers,” said Victor Wong, Google’s senior director of product management for Privacy Sandbox, told Gizmodo in an interview in April, 2023. “The mission of the Privacy Sandbox team writ large is to keep people’s activity private across a free and open Internet, and that supports the broader company mission, which is to make sure that information is still accessible for everyone and useful.”

While these Privacy Sandbox cookie alternatives are already accessible in the Chrome browser, they are currently optional. Users can disable them in settings if they find the concept unappealing.

These developments are significant because the majority of internet users use Chrome. Once Google completes its cookie phase-out, it will essentially be obsolete. If you encounter a popup in Chrome on January 4th, it indicates that you are part of the 1% test group receiving default “Tracking Protection,” Google’s term for the cookie-blocking tool. With tracking protection enabled, you’ll notice a small eyeball logo in the URL bar.