Google, the largest Internet search company, is considering a major change in how online browsing activity is tracked, a move that could shake up the $120 billion digital advertising industry.
Google is developing an anonymous identifier for advertising, or AdID, that would replace third-party cookies as the way advertisers track people's Internet browsing activity for marketing purposes, according to a person familiar with the plan.
The AdID would be transmitted to advertisers that have agreed to basic guidelines, giving consumers more privacy and control over how they browse the Web, the person said, on condition of anonymity because the plan is private.
"Technological enhancements can improve users' security while ensuring the Web remains economically viable. We and others have a number of concepts in this area, but they're all at very early stages," Google spokesman Rob Shilkin said. He declined to comment further.
Google's move will be closely watched by the ad industry because the company is the leader in online advertising and its Chrome browser is the world's most popular, having surged ahead of Microsoft 's Internet Explorer, Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari in recent years.
The cookie -- a small line of text with an identification tag that is integrated into browsers -- for years has been the staple way to recognize users when they visit Web sites. First-party cookies are placed on people's computers by companies that run Web sites, while third-party cookies are from other entities that collect data on browsing activity.
The technology is used by the ad industry to build a picture of people's interests, so more relevant ads can be shown to them online. However, cookies are controversial because tracking technology has become so sophisticated that it has raised privacy concerns.
Apple's Safari browser has blocked third-party cookies since 2003, and the technology giant introduced its own ad identifiers for its iOS mobile platform last year.
If Google follows through with its own version of this approach, that could give users more control over how they are tracked online. However, it will also put more power in the hands of two of the largest technology companies.
"Restricting third-party cookies isn't going to make relevant advertising go away; it just hands more power to big companies," said Zach Coelius, CEO of ad technology firm Triggit.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry group, at least wants some type of tracking technology, whether third-party cookies or something else, said general counsel Mike Zaneis.
But leaving such ad identifiers in the hands of a few large companies is not ideal, he added.
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