It’s crunch time for cookie bashers: Why we need cookies to protect the open Internet

Cookies came onto the scene in the mid 90s, and, like most millennials, they’re a little misunderstood. But this time, it’s got nothing to do with avocado toast.

For many of us, the word ‘cookie’ has become a bit of a byword for peskiness – associated with annoying ads and relentless targeting, not to mention clumsy permission-based puns (guilty as charged.) This misunderstanding has led to the ‘cookie’ becoming – well, a bit stale. But we’re here to challenge that misconception. Here’s why cookies still matter on the browser-based internet.

Dunking into data

The cookie has played – and continues to play – a vital role in the internet as we know it. From the 90s right up until the present, the cookie has very much been the enabler of free content on our computer screens. By allowing publishers to make money by serving ads, it has granted users across the world access to information, entertainment, culture, and so much more – all for free, or subsidised at the very least.

What’s more, given numerous browsers like Safari and Firefox limit or even avoid cookies – whilst mobile web doesn’t even use them – the amount of heat cookies get is significantly disproportionate to how often they appear. That discrepancy is even greater when given what they actually offer not just businesses, but consumers, too.

More than just crumbs

The fundamental quid pro quo is this: without cookie-driven advertising, everything we now get for free across the web would have its own individual cost. In a cookie-free world, that means pricey individual subscription costs for each and every website – or otherwise, more private ownership.

Of course, to some extent, many are willing to pay here and there for the odd bit of exclusive access or premium content – be it a morning FT habit, or an evening streaming session. But when everything requires a fee, the costs rack up and quickly become prohibitive.

Any significant cost barrier to entry will severely limit what the average person is willing and able to access on the internet. The end result? A more siloed internet, further monopolised by big business, characterised by echo chambers even more suffocating than the ones we have now.

That’s particularly problematic for sectors like journalism. The past decade has seen paywall after paywall rise up, with the knowledge behind them limited to those with deep enough pockets. The free press is the bedrock of civil society, and a lack of access severely impedes the ability to speak truth to power. The internet was founded with the aim of spreading knowledge to every corner of the world without pound and dollar signs standing in the way. If users pay for every article they read, that mission has failed.

Crunch time

The cookie is an invaluable asset to the World Wide Web. But, to date, it hasn’t been managed as effectively as it could be. Poor ID matching on the open web meant that, while cookies were being collected, advertisers were still missing out on a significant proportion of their own customers, who are most likely to buy their products or services again. And there have been even bigger losses when it comes to third party data, preventing brands from expanding their customer pool as effectively as they could.

But better ID solutions – like The Trade Desk’s Unified ID, for example – now mean many fewer cookies are dropped, making it easier to establish equivalence, control them and make good use of them. And the easier cookies make it for brands to reach the right audiences, the more ad spend will ultimately be injected into the ecosystem – continuing to protect the free internet we know, love and need.

Of course, the cookie will evolve – and, at some point, the technology will likely be replaced by an equivalent on the server side. In fact, we’re already looking into ways to identify users independently of cookies, so we can engage with precision as the advertising industry moves to the next phase.

But in the meantime, the cookie is an asset, not a burden. So, next time a pop-up appears asking for cookie permissions, don’t groan at the wordplay – take a moment and remember what that nifty piece of tech actually enables. Long live the cookie, I say.

Read more: The cookies crumble: Is enhanced digital privacy the end of programmatic as we know it?

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.  

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