WTF is the CMA — the Competition and Markets Authority

This article is a WTF explainer, in which we break down media and marketing’s most confusing terms. More from the series →

Looks like Google’s attempts to shake up targeted advertising in the Chrome browser are getting more eye rolls than applause. Even the U.K.’s privacy regulator the Information Commissioner’s Office is squinting skeptically, questioning if Google’s alternatives to third-party cookies will just stir up more trouble.

These concerns have made their way to the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). But why does the group’s opinion matter so much? Stick around to uncover why it’s key in the whole saga of bidding farewell to third-party cookies.

First up, WTF is the CMA?

The CMA, or Competition and Markets Authority, is essentially the watchdog of the U.K.’s business world. It keeps an eye on mergers, makes sure companies are playing fair and investigates when it smells something fishy in the market. Its job is to keep competition healthy and protect consumers from shady practices.

The CMA has the power to adjust the timeline for phasing out third-party cookies to keep Google from gaining an unfair advantage through its Privacy Sandbox of alternatives. It has asked ad tech companies and publishers to spill the beans on Privacy Sandbox tests by June.

Wait, what is the Privacy Sandbox?

In a nutshell, it’s Google’s attempt to overhaul how targeted ads work in the Chrome browser while keeping privacy in mind. For now, it’s tinkering with some parts and testing others. However this Sandbox ends up, it won’t be a complete swap-out for third-party cookies. Because, let’s face it, if it were, it would miss the whole point of tossing them aside along with all the trouble they stirred up. Needless to say, the Sandbox is complicated. For those eager to dive deeper, keep reading about it here.

Got it. Let’s get back to the CMA and Google.

If Google can’t win over the CMA, the regulator might just slam the brakes on Google’s plan to ditch third-party cookies by the end of the year. And there are some valid concerns: The regulator is worried Google might exploit the fact that Google will use Chrome data to recreate cookie-tracking that nobody else can copy, giving the tech behemoth’s ads platform an unfair advantage. Plus, it’s not convinced Google will give users enough control over their privacy preferences.

Speaking of privacy….

The CMA isn’t just watching Google’s moves for the sake of competition in advertising. Nope, it’s also zeroing in on how these changes affect people’s privacy. Both of these factors are like peanut butter and jelly — totally inseparable. Look at it like this: If Google is pushing for privacy-preserving technologies that trim down the data available for advertising, it’s bound to shake things up revenue-wise, especially for publishers, at least in the short run. It’s a delicate balance between privacy and profit, and the CMA is keeping tabs on how it all pans out.

So what’s the CMA’s stance on the Sandbox now? 

Well, it has got some concerns, outlined in a January report, but it has also made it clear the group wants to work things out. After all, Google’s legally bound to address those concerns. But if it can’t iron out the kinks, the CMA won’t hesitate to use its powers to delay the end of third-party cookies in Chrome. It’s a bit of a waiting game now. Will Google make enough changes to satisfy the CMA, or are we in for a regulatory standoff with no end in sight? Only time will tell.

How did we get here?

Back in 2021, the CMA decided to roll up its sleeves and dive deep into whether Google’s alternatives to third-party cookies in its Chrome browser were playing fair. Since then, the tech giant has agreed to toe the line with a bunch of commitments while developing the Sandbox to ensure everything’s above board.

These commitments even included a standstill period (originally set at 60 days, with the potential to be extended to 120 days) for the CMA to size up the Privacy Sandbox’s progress and any potential industry shake-ups. Google has promised to address all concerns raised by the CMA during this period before moving forward with cookie deprecation.

What happens if and when Google gets rid of third-party cookies in Chrome — does the CMA walk away?

No, the regulator will stick around, keeping tabs on how the Sandbox unfolds. This means monitoring every twist and turn as Google implements its changes. As for what comes next, well, we’ll just have to wait for the next quarterly report to shed some light on that.

https://digiday.com/?p=541832

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