Apple’s Cookie-Blocking Policy Is a Gift to the Duopoly

First Apple came for our headphone jacks. Then they came for our first-party cookies.

All right, it’s not that simple, but Apple’s updated cookie policy for its Safari browser feels like the company is twisting the knife a few more degrees, making its own rules without making any real concessions to the rest of the industry. (That’s not to say no one else in the industry stands to benefit… but the likely beneficiaries don’t need much of an assist. More on that in a bit.) Safari has blocked third-party cookies by default for ages. Seeing as Safari is the iPhone’s default browser, that cookie impediment has helped accelerate alternate, more convoluted ways of tracking consumer behavior across multiple devices. Apple’s new policy, and update to its June 2017 Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) announcement, takes this a step further and places restrictions on the use of first-party cookies in Safari. Using machine learning techniques, ITP will scour sites for assets originating from other sites, and it will segment cookies from those sites. After 24 hours, those cookies will become unavailable. After 30 days, if the user hasn’t gone back to the site in question, those cookies will be deleted.

Told you it wasn’t that simple. What it means, effectively, is that in logged-in environments, like Google and Facebook, it’ll still be possible to use cookies for tracking, as long as the user keeps coming back before the time limits kick in. For a third-party ad exchange, it would appear the situation is much more problematic. The 24-hour limit would hinder targeting across the exchange’s partner sites, and the 30-day limit stands to muck up post-campaign measurement.

Apple says this decision is about building up users’ trust in digital, that tracking users without their consent breeds mistrust. But six digital media and marketing trade groups issued an open letter yesterday saying the “trust” bit is hogwash, and decrying Apple for making a unilateral decision on behalf of all Safari users. The letter—signed by the 4As, ANA, IAB, AAF, DMF and NAI—went on to call Apple’s cookie policy “opaque and arbitrary” and suggest it will “hurt the user experience and sabotage the economic model for the internet.”

I’m inclined to agree, more or less. User trust in digital fosters deeper engagement, which is better for publishers and advertisers. Trust comes from transparency, and any companies with a stake in digital advertising ought to do their part to educate users about what they’re doing. Apple is skipping ahead with ITP, making decisions for Safari users without educating users and allowing them to make their own privacy choices. Even for people who are conversant in the moving parts that allow digital advertising to be distributed, Apple’s new policy can be hard to follow. For people who aren’t in the business of knowing this stuff already, it’s a total headache.

Safari has a heavy foothold in mobile, but depending on who you ask, its share of the browser market is somewhere around 18%. By comparison, Chrome still nabs more mobile browser market share by a long shot. The ITP policy serves to only further chip away at an already fragmented space. The industry at large hasn’t “solved” cross-device measurement. It sounds right now like Apple is okay with hobbling that process of mastering cross-device ad targeting before platforms and publishers can give users the opportunity to choose whether or not they want to be on the receiving end of it.

Mobile monetization is an ongoing sore spot for publishers at large. Creating a Safari-sized blind spot in the ecosystem would seem to only push more mobile advertiser spend toward Facebook Audience Network, where they have a logged-in and verified audience at scale. That’s not ideal for publishers, who have concerns about opacity around the data FAN gives or doesn’t give them. At first glance, it appears Apple is handing a big ol’ gift to the Duopoly here, and it feels like a premature decision.

Apple’s ultimate goal here might become clearer as time progresses and the industry reacts. At the moment, it seems like this is a call to accelerate cookieless cross-device tracking methods, and for publishers and vendors to form new kinds of partnerships. The ad-supported model isn’t going anywhere, and those who are invested in it will need to find some new workarounds in mobile.