Members of the advertising industry like to talk about the freedom of the open web. The thinking goes like this: Unlike what transpires inside the walled gardens of Google’s, Facebook’s and Amazon’s platforms, companies are free to operate relatively autonomously on the open web. But that’s not entirely true.

Over the past few years, Apple, Mozilla and Google have announced changes to their web browsers that limit how advertising companies can conduct their business. These changes, which have largely been made in the name of protecting people’s privacy, are intended to restrict how these companies can track, across websites they don’t own, the activity of users.

A byproduct of the changes, however, is that they make explicit what has always been implied: The browser makers are the arbiters of the online advertising industry. In fact, the browser makers seem to wield more power over the industry than government regulators do.

“[Apple CEO] Tim Cook is more important than the EU,” said an ad tech executive.

While the European Union and the California legislature have passed laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act that are meant to keep online tracking practices in check, regulators cannot enforce the laws in one sweeping action. But browser makers can take such unilateral actions, and they are.

Apple, in particular, has been lambasted by advertising industry executives for disabling third-party tracking cookies in its Safari browser without advertising industry input. Google’s Jan. 14 announcement that its Chrome browser will stop supporting third-party cookies within two years has been similarly received: Industry trade groups such as the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies decried their lack of involvement in Google’s decision.

These cookie crackdowns build on an already icy relationship between browser makers and the members of the advertising industry. “The people that run Chrome and Mozilla and [the browser engine developed by Apple] WebKit are engineers, not advertising and marketing people,” said the ad tech executive. “In many cases, they’re pretty hostile” to advertising.

Nonetheless, industry executives are well aware that the tracking cookie is on its way out, and they acknowledge that the browser makers will ultimately dictate its replacement. So they are gritting their teeth and abiding, if not endorsing, Google’s plan to develop an alternative with the participation of publishers, advertising companies and other browser makers.

As one publishing executive put it, “If you accept the premise that Google is the overlord and are fine with that, a browser-owned identity system that runs in a privacy-compliant manner is a pretty good solution.” That’s especially true if the alternative is government regulators’ outlawing of online tracking altogether.

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